Thursday, March 11, 2004

NEW YORK — U.N. officials yesterday acknowledged that they have long been in possession of an airplane “black box” that may shed light on the mysterious downing of a plane that sparked the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left 800,000 dead.

The flight-data recorder was discovered Wednesday in a locked file cabinet in the peacekeeping department, where it had been left a decade ago by someone in the aviation-safety division.

It had been sent by diplomatic pouch from the U.N. Mission in Kigali and arrived in New York shortly after the crash that killed Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprian Ntayamira.

“I was as surprised as you were to find out that a black box existed, much less in this building,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday afternoon. “From what I have picked up, it sounds like a real foul-up, a first class foul-up. I don’t think there has been any attempt to cover up.”

French investigators have been seeking the flight recorder as part of their inquiry to why the private jet crashed as it approached the Kigali airport

U.N. officials stressed yesterday that the black box is in “pristine condition” and are investigating whether it had been retrieved from the site of the April 6, 1994, crash.

“It appears that the air-safety officials at the time judged from the condition of the box that it had no connection to the crash that killed the two presidents because it was in pristine condition,” said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard. “It seemed like a scientific object that had not been used.”

The location of the missing recorder was made public in an investigation by a French judge, Jean-Louis Brugiere. His findings on the plane crash were leaked last week to the French daily Le Monde, which also reported that the flight recorder was at the United Nations.

That report concludes that Rwanda’s current president, the former rebel leader Paul Kagame, likely ordered the missile strike that brought down the plane and triggered events that led to the death of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Mr. Eckhard said a paper trail indicated that the flight recorder, a bright orange metal box, arrived at the Secretariat building two to three months after the genocide began, and was sent by diplomatic pouch from the U.N. Mission in Kigali, via the regional office in Kenya.

He said no one in a position of authority knew that the flight recorder from Kigali had arrived in summer of 1994, including the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations at the time, Kofi Annan.

He said that low-level staffers never notified their superiors about the flight recorder.

U.N. “air-safety experts, after unsuccessfully trying to identify its source, put the black box in a file cabinet and did not report it up the chain of command,” Mr. Eckhard said. “The first time senior peacekeeping officials knew of this was yesterday.”

Pressed by reporters about how such an important instrument had gone unnoticed, Mr. Eckhard recalled the overworked, understaffed days when peacekeeping demands were relentless.

Mr. Eckhard said U.N. officials began looking for the black box after Le Monde published a story about French investigators complaining that the United Nations was stonewalling their efforts to find it.

The box will be sent to experts to analyze the content. And the U.N. inspector general will launch an investigation into how the flight recorder could have been mislaid.

Mr. Kagame angrily rejected any role in the assassination at a press conference in Brussels yesterday.

“The FPR and myself have nothing to do with the death of Habyarimana,” said Mr. Kagame, using the initials for his Rwanda Patriotic Front Party. “Very clearly, that information has no credibility.”

The day after the assassination, the country’s majority Hutu population began the massacres of ethnic Tutsis that lasted until July 17. “I cannot comment on what Judge Brugiere may have found or may have fabricated,” said Mr. Kagame, himself a Tutsi, but added: “The story is invented.”

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