Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CHRIS JACKSON

THE US on Monday urged Rwanda to leave exiled opponents in peace as a diplomatic stand-off about attacks on Rwandese in South Africa went into a fifth day.

South Africa’s cluster of security ministers was understood to have met for several hours on Monday to weigh a measured response to the virtual breakdown of relations with Rwanda.

“Efforts to silence dissidents run counter to Rwanda’s democratic development,” said Jack Hillmeyer, the US embassy spokesman in Pretoria.

“We urge the government of Rwanda to respect the rights of members of all political parties and political leaders,” he said.

South Africa ordered the expulsion of three Rwandese diplomats last week in connection with a reported raid on the Johannesburg residence of former Rwanda army chief Kayumba Nyamwasa. Rwanda retaliated immediately, expelling six staff from South Africa’s embassy in Kigali.

The unfinished episode marked a new low in bilateral relations, already tense because of confrontation last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda’s western neighbour.

The South African government and a ministerial spokesman refused to comment on Monday about the security cluster meeting and what decisions it had reached, if any. It is usually chaired by Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe.

The long delay in reacting to Rwanda’s decision to expel six South African officials underlined the gravity of the crisis but may also have signalled the government’s uncertainty about how to respond. The withdrawal of high commissioner George Twala — one of the last South African officials left in Kigali — is one option.

Rwanda’s high commissioner — the title used for ambassadors of one Commonwealth country based in another — in Pretoria, Vincent Karega, was understood to have travelled home as the crisis erupted to attend a previously planned meeting.

Gen Nyamwasa had previously survived an assassination attempt after going into exile in South Africa. Another former ally of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Patrick Karegeya, was murdered in a Sandton hotel room on New Year’s Eve and prominent opponents have been attacked, killed or threatened in South Africa, Mozambique and the UK.

“The US is troubled by the succession of what appear to be politically motivated attacks against prominent Rwandan exiles. President Kagame’s statements about ‘consequences’ for those who ‘betray’ Rwanda are of deep concern,” Mr Hillmeyer said.

Mr Kagame, a member of the Tutsi minority, has led Rwanda since the end of the 1994 genocide committed by hardliners in the Hutu majority. His comments about Karegeya’s killing have included a denial of responsibility but the assertion that his former external intelligence chief had it coming to him.

A crackdown by South African security agencies on suspected hitmen sent to target Rwandese dissidents was overdue, said Stephanie Wolters, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

“The attacks were starting to make the South African government look ridiculous,” she said.

Rwanda’s embassy in Pretoria was not taking calls on Monday and South Africa’s mission in Kigali had a sign up saying that no visas were being issued.