The FBI, with help of the Rwandan government, arrested three suspected rebels in Rwanda and transferred them to Puerto Rico where they were charged with the 1999 killings of two American tourists in Uganda, the Associated Press (AP) reported from Washington DC on Monday.
The Americans, together with four British and two New Zealand tourists, were hacked and bludgeoned to death during a trip to see rare mountain gorillas in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda. They were in a group of about 30 tourists.
AP quoted the US authorities as saying that Rob Haubner and his wife, Susan Miller, had been among the English-speaking tourists targeted by Rwandan Hutu rebels "in a bid to weaken US and British support for the new Rwandan government".
"This was a vicious, cold-blooded, brutal attack that was intended to make a political point," AP quoted US Attorney Roscoe Howard of the District of Columbia, where a federal grand jury indicted the three on 25 February, as saying.
The news agency said those charged with murder, conspiracy and other counts were identified as Rwandan nationals Leonidas Bimenyiamana, 34, Francois Karake, 38, and Gregoire Nyaminami, 32.
They had made their initial court appearances in Puerto Rico, but their trials would be held later in Washington DC, AP reported. The charges carry a possible death penalty.
According to AP, the men were described as members of the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, which is affiliated with the former Hutu regime in Rwanda blamed for the genocide of more than 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
The head of the US Justice Department's criminal division, Michael Chertoff, told reporters that the arrests would send a message worldwide that "those who commit acts of terror against Americans, whenever and wherever, will be hunted, captured and brought to justice".
AP quoted Gerard Gahima, Rwanda's attorney-general, as saying the three men were among about 3,000 rebels who had been captured during a wave of attacks on Rwanda from rebel bases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May and August 2001. Interrogations had revealed that they had participated in the 1999 attack on the tourists, Gahima said.
"They basically admitted involvement in the attack, and indicated that they were foot soldiers, not masterminds," AP quoted Gahima as saying.
Chertoff said the investigation was continuing and further arrests were possible.
During the 1 March 1999 incident, the rebels invaded the tourists' campsite and forced 17 tourists who spoke English to take off their shoes and begin marching, according to the US indictment. They also killed one of the park's guards by pushing him under a truck and setting it on fire.
The eight tourists were killed along the march with machetes and axes. Miller was also allegedly raped by one of the suspects.
A survivor of the attack was given a note by the rebels warning the United States and Britain not to interfere in Rwanda. Similar notes were found on the bodies of two of those killed.
A news release published by the New Zealand government website on Tuesday hailed the forthcoming trial of the three Rwandans. Foreign Minister Phil Goff welcomed news that the three were to face charges in the US in relation to the killing of the eight tourists, including the two New Zealanders - Rhonda Avis of Auckland and Michelle Strathern of Timaru.
"Inquiries are being made as to whether the US prosecution will, or can, lay charges in relation to all the victims. If the three men arrested are responsible for other deaths in the group, it would be desirable to see them held to account for those crimes as well. This is notwithstanding that the men, if found guilty of murdering the American victims, will face severe penalties anyway," Goff said.
"If there is no evidence that these are the men responsible for the deaths of Rhonda and Michelle, we would want American authorities to make further inquiries of the arrested men as to who was responsible. This may assist us to pursue the matter further with relevant agencies in the country where they were killed," Goff said.