US calls on Kigali to hold "free and fair" elections

The United States has called on Rwanda to hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections in the wake of growing animosity between the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and opposition candidates.

A statement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Wednesday said that the US was "pleased to note the presence of the four candidates on the presidential ballot and the strong interest of the Rwanda people in the election process".

However, he warned against increased divisiveness that has been marring the campaigns.

"In the interest of seeing a democratic process continue and political openness maintained, the United States is concerned about recent reports of intimidation, harassment and the use of ethnicity as a means of inciting political division," Boucher said.

In a statement on Tuesday, Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission said that the process of uniting and reconciling Rwandans was "at stake and facing difficulties", and accused the main opposition presidential candidate, Faustin Twagiramungu, a former prime minister, of using divisive talk and material calling on the "majority Hutu to turn against the Tutsi-led regime" by voting for him.

But Twagiramungu has dismissed the accusation, and in turn has charged the RPF with obstructing his campaign and intimidating his staff and supporters.

[See earlier IRIN story, "Polls threaten to renew ethnic divide"]

In a similar appeal, African Rights on Tuesday urged all four candidates - Kagame, Twagiramungu, Alivera Mukabaramba and Nepomuscene Nayinzira - to campaign consistently and fairly, offering the electorate answers on how they will tackle issues including poverty, development, justice, discrimination and HIV/AIDS.

"They must collectively seize the moment to draw a line under past divisions and to appeal positively to all the electorate on the basis of a genuine commitment to the welfare of ordinary people of all ethnicities," the international NGO said.

It also highlighted what it called "a number of worrying developments", such as the recent disappearance of two members of the Democratic Republican Movement (MDR), Leonard Hitimana and Col Augustine Cyiza, the lengthy detention of former President Pasteur Bizimungu, and a number of arrests of journalists without charge.

"With memories of past violence and experience of present uncertainty, casting a vote in Rwanda will be an exercise in courage," African Rights said.

Rwanda witnessed the worst manifestation of divisive politics in 1994 when Hutu extremists killed about 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in a period of 100 days.

Rwanda's presidential elections are scheduled to take place on 25 August, while legislative elections are scheduled for 29 - 30 September and 2 October. Over 1,000 election observers are expected from the African Union, Europe and the US.