JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Rwanda's former spy chief has been found dead, possibly strangled, in a hotel in South Africa, police said Thursday, and opposition leaders immediately accused President Paul Kagame of ordering his assassination.
The opposition coalition Rwandan National Congress said Patrick Karegeya, a former colonel and longtime Kagame ally in war who turned against him in peace, was found strangled in a room at Johannesburg's plush Michelangelo Towers hotel.
"He was found in the hotel room dead on the bed," said a statement from police spokeswoman Lt. Col. Katlego Mogale. "A towel with blood and a rope were found in the hotel room safe. There is a possibility that he might have been strangled."
It said his body was found on Wednesday, New Year's Day. Congress coordinator Theogene Rudasingwa told The Associated Press in a telephone call from Washington that it is unclear if Karegeya was killed on Tuesday or Wednesday. Rudasingwa said Karegeya had gone to the Johannesburg hotel to meet a Rwandan man who had posed as a friend of the opposition and who had registered into the hotel room in which Karegeya's body was found. The police statement said Karegeya had checked into the hotel in his own name.
Rudasingwa said Karegeya's death follows a pattern of assassinations ordered by Kagame.
Rwandan High Commissioner in South Africa Vincent Karega told eNCA, a local broadcaster, that talk of an assassination was an "emotional reaction and opportunistic way of playing politics." He urged people to wait for South African police to establish what happened. He said Karegeya had lived in South Africa for more than five years.
Kagame's spokesman and Rwanda's foreign minister could not be reached by telephone and did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.
Rwandan exiles from the president's Tutsi tribe say British, U.S. and Belgian law enforcers have frequently warned them that their government is plotting to kill them. Kagame's government has vehemently denied such charges. Two British legislators called for Britain to review its relationship with Rwanda in 2011 when they said a 6-month-old Scotland Yard investigation led to the deportation of an alleged Rwandan assassin trying to come into Britain. Two Rwandan exiles said they received warnings from Scotland Yard that the Rwandan government posed an "imminent threat" to their lives.
Kagame's government issued a statement then saying, "Never does the Government of Rwanda threaten the lives of its citizens, nor use violence against its people, wherever they live."
In 2012, Sweden and Belgium deported Rwandan diplomats — Sweden for spying on Rwandan refugees, and Belgium for activities inconsistent with diplomatic status.
Gunmen twice tried to kill Kagame's former chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, while he was living in exile in Johannesburg in 2010. Kagame has long been accused of killings outside Rwanda.
"By killing its opponents, the criminal regime in Kigali seeks to intimidate and silence the Rwandan people into submission," said an opposition statement signed by Rudasingwa. "The regime is hugely mistaken. Such criminal activities make Rwandan people more emboldened to struggle to remove the dictatorship."
Karegeya and Nyamwasa are among four top former Rwandan army officers, all from Kagame's minority Tutsi tribe, who formed an opposition party in exile six years ago. They had fought with Kagame in the Ugandan rebel movement that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986 in Uganda, which is next to Rwanda. Museveni then allowed them bases and training to form their own Tutsi rebel movement. Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power in 1994, when it ended the genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
The four defectors were sentenced in Rwanda in their absence to long prison terms in 2011 for allegedly promoting tribal divisions and threatening state security with grenade attacks in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. They accuse Kagame of stifling opposition and killing and jailing critics to stay in power and keep out the Hutus who form the majority in Rwanda.
Karegeya, who was 53 according to police, leaves a wife, Leah, who is in Johannesburg, and three children. Karegeya exercised great power when he served as intelligence chief of Rwanda for 10 years before he was arrested and jailed for 18 months for insubordination and desertion. He fled the country after he was stripped of his rank in 2006.
Kagame's supporters, including the United States and Britain, point to his development achievements. Today, Rwanda has some of the best health, literacy and education rates on the continent, though critics say it has come at the price of dictatorship.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.