US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Thursday, facing calls from campaigners to pressure Kigali over its human rights record and alleged support of rebels in the neighbouring Democratic of Congo.
Blinken arrived late Wednesday in Rwanda, the final stop of a three-nation trip to Africa, hot on the heels of a visit to the continent by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The US diplomat has sought to woo African nations, which have largely steered clear of backing Washington against Moscow in the Ukraine war, by calling for an "equal" partnership with the continent.
His visit comes after an unpublished independent investigation for the UN, seen by AFP last week, said Rwandan troops had attacked soldiers inside the DRC and aided M23 rebels, a primarily Tutsi rebel group.
The M23 has captured swathes of territory in eastern DRC in recent months, causing tensions to spike between Kigali and Kinshasa, which has repeatedly accused Kagame's government of backing the notorious militia.
During his visit to the DRC, Blinken said Tuesday the United States was "very concerned by credible reports that Rwanda has supported the M23," adding that he would discuss the issue with Kagame, whose government has consistently denied the claims.
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Ties between the DRC and Rwanda have been strained since the mass arrival in the eastern DRC of Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, although there was a thaw after DRC President Felix Tshisekedi took office in 2019.
Blinken is also expected to press for the release of Paul Rusesabagina, the "Hotel Rwanda" hero who is credited with saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide.
A US permanent resident, Rusesabagina is a fierce critic of Kagame and was sentenced to a 25-year prison term last year on terrorism charges after a plane he believed was bound for Burundi landed in Kigali in August 2020.
In May, the US State Department said Rusesabagina had been "wrongfully detained" by Kigali.
In a statement released Monday, Human Rights Watch called on Blinken to "urgently signal that there will be consequences for the government's repression and abuse in Rwanda and beyond its borders".
"Failing to address Rwanda's abysmal human rights record has emboldened its officials to continue to commit abuse, even beyond its borders," said Lewis Mudge, HRW's Central Africa director.
The rights watchdog urged Blinken "to highlight systematic human rights violations, including crackdowns on opponents and civil society, both within and across Rwanda's borders."
Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire echoed HRW's calls, telling AFP that Blinken should raise the issue of journalists and politicians she said were in prison for challenging Kagame's government.
"Blinken has to ask our government to open up political space to everyone who wants to be active in politics," said Ingabire, who spent six years in jail on terrorism charges.
Meanwhile, Rusesabagina's family said in a statement issued to coincide with Blinken's visit that it hoped his "direct engagement" on the case would help bring their "nightmare" to an end.
It said the 68-year-old's health was deteriorating after more than 700 days behind bars, with a weak left arm and facial paralysis indicating that he may have had one or more strokes.
"His symptoms remain untreated," the family said.