RWANDA - UN chief Ban Ki-moon told Rwandans marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide it should "never again" happen anywhere as many survivors broke down over the loss of nearly a million lives.
The commemoration also exposed festering anger as Rwanda renewed allegations of French complicity in the genocide that led to France's official absence from the international ceremony at the national stadium. (President Paul Kagame speech in full below)
In a speech there, Ban admitted the international community was still wracked by the "shame" of having failed to act in Rwanda and making the same mistake a year later during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
"Many United Nations personnel and others showed remarkable bravery. But we could have done much more. We should have done much more. In Rwanda, troops were withdrawn when they were most needed," the UN secretary general said.
"The shame still clings, a generation after the events."
The well-planned and viciously executed genocide began late on April 6, 1994, shortly after Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali. Roadblocks were set up, with Tutsi men, women and children of all ages butchered with machetes, guns and grenades.
At least 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, died.
Official mourning began three months ago with a flame of remembrance touring towns and villages across the small central African nation, and culminated on Monday when the torch arrived at the national genocide memorial -- where the remains of a quarter of a million people are stored in vast concrete tombs.
Kagame lit a flame that will burn for 100 days, the length of time it took government soldiers and "Hutu power" militiamen to carry out their plan to wipe out the "Inyenzi" -- a term meaning "cockroaches" that was used by Hutu extremists to designate minority Tutsis.
Wreathes were also laid, before ceremonies in Kigali's football stadium where the UN chief, several African heads of state and top diplomats from Europe and the United States were gathered.
- Screams and cries -
At the stadium, survivors of the genocide recounted their memories of the killings and of survival. Several people were overcome with grief, screaming and crying uncontrollably with medical staff helping to carry them out and to provide counselling.
"It is the day when the faces of all those I loved and died come back," said Marie Muresyankwano, a mother in her thirties, adding she would watch events on television, but would otherwise spend time "with my own thoughts".
"It is so hard for the people, because it opens mental wounds, hearing the testimonies of those who survived, they are reminded of what happened to them," a Rwandan health ministry official said.
French officials, however, were absent, with French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira having pulled out over the weekend after Kagame repeated his accusation that French soldiers -- who helped train the Hutu nationalist-controlled Rwandan army prior to 1994, as well as being accused of aiding the killers to escape -- were complicit "actors" in the bloodbath.
France's ambassador to Kigali, Michel Flesch, told AFP that he had been asked to stay away from the ceremonies.
French authorities have repeatedly denied any direct involvement in the genocide, and, unlike former colonial power Belgium, has refused to apologise. In a statement, the French presidency said it "joins with the Rwandan people to honour the memories of all victims of the genocide".
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo accused Paris of a "cover-up".
"Serious mistakes were made and it would not serve the bilateral relationship if many of the leaders in France today continue to deny, continue to cover up," she told reporters.
"I remain hopeful that some of the leaders in France, some of the people in the miltary establishment particularly, who are often behind this denial, will realise that for our people, our countries, we are much better off moving forward."
- Lessons learned -
In his speech at the stadium, Kagame took another thinly-veiled swipe at France, saying it was impossible to "change the facts" and drawing loud applause.
But he said Rwandans should also celebrate the remarkable progress made in the past 20 years.
Kagame has led Rwanda since his then-rebel force ousted Hutu extremists, carrying out a business-friendly and zero-corruption policy -- although he has also come in for fierce criticism over his refusal to tolerate dissent and his alleged backing of rebels in neighbouring DR Congo.
"Today we have a reason to celebrate the normal moments of life, that are easy for others to take for granted. If the genocide reveals humanity's shocking capacity for human cruelty, Rwanda's choices show its capacity for renewal," Kagame said.
The UN chief has said the commemorations were a chance to remind the world to do all it can to ensure such crimes never happen again.
"Today, Syria is in flames and the Central African Republic is in chaos. The world has yet to fully overcome its divisions, its indifference, its moral blind spots," he said.
But he asserted there was progress because "leaders and warlords alike face the growing likelihood of prosecution for their crimes".
The UN was widely criticised in 1994 for only belatedly recognising that a genocide was in progress and therefore shirking its responsibility to intervene, but Ban said the UN had taken stock of its failures.
"Our first duty must always be to protect people -- to protect human beings in need and distress. That is what we have done recently in South Sudan," the UN secretary general said.
"We are sure to face other grave challenges to our common values. And we must meet them. We must not be left to utter the words 'never again,' again and again."
The official "Kwibuka" mourning -- meaning "remember" in Kinyarwanda -- ends on July 4, Rwanda's liberation day.
FULL SPEECH BY KAGAME AT THE CEREMONY
FULL Speech by Rwanda President Kagame 20th Commemoration of Genocide. Kigali April 2014 by The New Vision