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Rwanda rocked by grenade explosions

President Paul Kagame hailed as Rwanda joins Commonwealth, but country jittery as elections approach.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has led the country out of the horrors of the country's 1994 genocide, but now that he is standing for re-election after 16 years in power, he is viewed by many as autocratic. This photo of Kagame in London was taken on Sept. 18, 2009. (Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images)

KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwandan President Paul Kagame received a royal welcome in London as he celebrated Rwanda’s entry into the Commonwealth early in March. The Rwandan flag was hoisted over Commonwealth headquarters at Marlborough House, and Kagame and wife were feted at a banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth.

It was a moment of triumph for Rwanda’s leader who has guided the country back from the genocide of 1994. But back home, far from the pomp, Kagame is increasingly seen as autocratic and he is facing some of the most serious challenges since coming to power.

In the lead-up to the presidential election in August, there are mounting conflicts in Rwanda, including deadly grenade attacks in the capital, a challenge by a controversial opposition leader, and defections by high-level officials from his Rwandan Patriotic Front party.

In response, the Kagame government is cracking down. Human Rights Watch has warned that opposition politicians are facing increased threats, attacks and harassment.

On the international front, Rwanda has become the darling of many Western governments, widely praised for its economic development, environmental policies, anti-corruption efforts and embrace of information technology. Rwanda is one of only two Commonwealth countries that were not originally part of the British Empire — an unusual modern-day choice of alignment for this small African nation that in colonial times was under German and Belgian control, and in the 1990s more closely tied to France.

By joining the Commonwealth, Kagame has boosted his international support and bolstered his power at a crucial time in his presidency.

Back in Kigali, however, a string of grenade attacks has shaken this normally peaceful city. The latest incident saw 16 people injured in two near-simultaneous blasts on March 4.

When an earlier round of grenade explosions rocked Kigali in February, Rwandan authorities first pointed the finger at the FDLR, a Hutu rebel group across the border in Congo. But later they blamed it on Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former army general who was most recently the ambassador to India, and Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence chief. Both men have fled to South Africa, joining the dozens of once high-ranking exiles who have defected to neighboring countries since Kagame came to power.

“The regime in Kigali is really descending into total dictatorship and you know absolute power corrupts absolutely … . You are not supposed to debate and if you are perceived to have a different opinion on anything, then you are an enemy,” Nyamwasa told Voice of America. “That’s what happened to me.”

At a press conference this month, Kagame also tried to link the grenade attacks to independent journalists who are critical of his rule, lashing out in particular at Rwandan journalists in exile who had interviewed Karegeya, one of the two ex-military officers accused in the grenade attacks.