KIGALI, Rwanda – French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Thursday in the first visit to Rwanda by a French president in 25 years, a trip that was made despite French arrest warrants for eight people close to Kagame.
The trip is also the first by a French leader since Rwanda's 1994 genocide. It aims to cement diplomatic ties that were restored in November, three years after they broke down because of the arrest warrants that accused those close to Kagame of a role in the presidential assassination that sparked the genocide.
Sarkozy was met at Kigali's airport by Rwanda's prime minister and then visited the main genocide museum in the tiny, mountainous central African country. Afterward Kagame welcomed Sarkozy at his official residence.
France and Rwanda have sparred for years over an alleged French role in the genocide, in which 500,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were massacred in frenzied killing led by radical Hutus.
Rwanda's government and genocide survivor organizations have often accused France of training and arming the militias and former government troops who led the genocide. In 1998, a French parliamentary panel absolved France of responsibility in the slaughter.
The eight arrest warrants are still active, but Rwanda has apparently accepted France's insistence that they were ordered not by the French government but by an independent judge.
Sarkozy on Wednesday stopped in Gabon, then made an unscheduled stop in Mali, where he met with a French aid worker released by al-Qaida's North Africa offshoot this week after almost three months in captivity.
Sarkozy has insisted that he wants a healthier relationship with Africa after years of what is known as the "Francafrique" — the French nickname for the secretive network between politicians, businessmen and soldiers in France and Africa.
But Sarkozy's impromptu stop in Mali on Wednesday raised questions about that intention. There has been massive speculation that France had put pressure on Mali to free four suspected Islamic militants from jail to guarantee the safety of the French hostage.
In Mali, Sarkozy thanked President Amadou Toumani Toure for his efforts to free Pierre Camatte, saying that without them, Camatte "would not be here today."
The Mali court decision to convict the four suspects on arms charges and sentence them to only nine months behind bars — which they had already served, resulting in their release — angered Mali's neighbors, Algeria and Mauritania, who worried it would encourage terrorists in the region.
Asked whether France had pushed Mali to release the suspected militants, French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet told Europe-1 radio, "It's not that simple, there was a trial."
Associated Press reporter Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.