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Rwanda on Monday held solemn commemorations to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide, with many survivors overcome with the emotion of reliving the trauma of the massacres that left nearly a million dead.
The events also bore reminders of festering anger as a major diplomatic row broke out over renewed allegations of French complicity in the genocide.
Paris had cancelled a ministerial visit in response to the accusations by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and on Monday the French ambassador was barred from attending commemoration ceremonies.
Official mourning, which began three months ago with a flame of remembrance touring towns and villages across the small central African nation, culminated on Monday when the torch arrived at the national genocide memorial - where the remains of a quarter of a million people are stored in vast concrete tombs.
Kagame lit a flame that will burn for 100 days, the length of time it took government soldiers and “Hutu power” militiamen to carry out their plan to wipe out the “Inyenzi” - a term meaning “cockroaches” that was used by Hutu extremists to denigrate and designate the minority Tutsis.
The well-planned and viciously executed genocide began late on April 6, 1994, shortly after Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali. Roadblocks were set up, with Tutsi men, women and children of all ages butchered with machetes, guns and grenades.
An estimated 800 000 people, mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, died in the killings.
Wreathes were also laid, before ceremonies in Kigali's football stadium where UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, several African heads of state and top diplomats from Europe and the United States were gathered.
At the national stadium, survivors of the genocide recounted their memories of the killings and of their survival. Several people were overcome with trauma, screaming and crying uncontrollably with medical staff helping to carry them out and to provide counselling.
“It is the day when the faces of all those I loved and died come back,” said Marie Muresyankwano, a mother in her thirties, adding that she would watch events on television, but would otherwise spend time “with my own thoughts”.
French officials, however, were absent - with French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira having pulled out over the weekend after Kagame repeated his accusation of French “participation” in the genocide.
The Rwandan president said French soldiers - who helped train the Hutu nationalist-controlled Rwandan army prior to 1994, as well as being accused of aiding the killers to escape - were both accomplices and “actors” in the bloodbath.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo also told France that it had to face up to the “difficult truth” over its involvement.
France's ambassador to Kigali, Michel Flesch, told AFP that he had been telephoned overnight and told he was “no longer accredited for the ceremonies”. French authorities have repeatedly denied any direct involvement in the genocide, and, unlike former colonial power Belgium, has refused to apologise.
Mushikiwabo, speaking to welcome dignitaries and launch the commemorations in the stadium, spoke of remembering the “dark days” of the past, but said that “today 20 years later, we are a people united”.
“Our common culture is our identity, our language unites us all,” the crowd sang in Kinyarwanda in the anthem.
The UN chief has said the commemorations were a chance to remind the world to do all it can to ensure such crimes never happen again. The UN was also heavily criticised in 1994 for not doing more to stop the killings.
“The scale of the brutality in Rwanda still shocks: an average of 10 000 deaths per day, day after day, for three months,” Ban said.
He said the impact of the massacres is still being felt across an “arc of uncertainty in Africa's Great Lakes region - and in the collective conscience of the international community”.
“People everywhere should place themselves in the shoes of the vulnerable, from Syria to the Central African Republic, and ask themselves what more they can do to build a world of human rights and dignity for all,” Ban said.
US President Barack Obama also paid tribute to the victims, saying the genocide “shook the conscience of the world”.
“The horrific events of those 100 days - when friend turned against friend, and neighbour against neighbour - compel us to resist our worst instincts, just as the courage of those who risked their lives to save others reminds us of our obligations to our fellow man,” Obama said in a statement.
“The genocide we remember today - and the world's failure to respond more quickly - reminds us that we always have a choice.”
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN and who is at the commemorations, said the Rwandan genocide was “a devastating reminder that nightmares seemingly beyond imagination can in fact take place”.
The official “Kwibuka” mourning - meaning “remember” in Kinyarwanda - ends on July 4, Rwanda's liberation day. - Sapa-AFP