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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

300 Die in Rwanda As Rebels Attack Jail

NAIROBI, Kenya -- More than 300 people were killed when about 1,200 Hutu rebels attacked a jail in northwest Rwanda in a bid to free hundreds of prisoners awaiting trial on genocide charges, Rwandan officials said Thursday.

They said the jail attack was launched and repulsed Monday night, but clashes between the rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army continued in the area until Wednesday.

"It was a big battle, but we managed to prevent their plans," said a Rwandan government official who asked not to be identified.

He said over 1,200 rebels raided the jail, about 100 kilometers northwest of the capital along the way to the town of Gisenyi on the border with Congo.

Most of those in jail were awaiting trial on charges they participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

"A big force of the Interahamwe [Hutu militiamen] tried to take the jail to free their comrades, but their plans were foiled by the army," the official said.

He could not say how many prisoners the jail held, but said rebels tried to burn down and blast their way through one of the fortified walls, and the resulting blaze killed dozens of prisoners.

He said some prisoners did escape during the mayhem, but could not say how many.

The area was the former stronghold of late Hutu strongman Juvenal Habyarimana, whose assassination sparked the genocide. It is close to a vast national forest reserve from which Hutu rebels have being staging increasingly bold attacks against government positions.

Other Rwandan officials said nearly 100 rebels were killed in the fighting. They said two government soldiers died in the attack.

The other casualties were drawn from prisoners killed in the blaze or civilians killed in cross fire during the battles that followed, they said.

The attack was the most brazen in a series of skirmishes since last year when hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees were forced to return home from their camps in former Zaire where they had fled to escape reprisals for the genocide.

Last month Rwandan forces were engaged in running battles with Hutu rebels in Gisenyi and nearby Ruhengeri after the rebels briefly captured a series of surrounding small towns and villages and launched an attack on the area's main airport.

Those attacks were described by officials as the worst inside the small but militarily powerful Rwanda since the army of Major General Paul Kagame took power in 1994 to end the genocide.

At that time more than 1 million Hutus fled their homeland for refugee camps in neighboring countries, but most returned late last year after Zaire's longtime ruler Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown in a lightning seven-month offensive by forces of Rwandan-backed Laurent Kabila, who changed the republic's name.

Over 100,000 people, mainly Hutus, are in overcrowded prisons in Rwanda awaiting trial on charges they participated in the genocide.