With the quiet support of the US, the Rwandan government has been campaigning to have Carla Del Ponte replaced as chief prosecutor for the tribunal dealing with the mass killing in Rwanda in 1994, some diplomats and tribunal officials said last week.
They said Rwanda was furious that Del Ponte had been investigating several senior civilian and military members of the present Tutsi-led government for reported atrocities at the time of the bloodshed.
As many as half a million Tutsi were believed to be killed in the Hutu-led slaughter that lasted three months. But Tutsi troops who subsequently seized power are believed to have killed more than 30,000 civilians in reprisals.
Until now, all those indicted have been Hutu, and Del Ponte has often denounced Rwanda for obstructing her efforts to investigate Tutsi crimes. But she has insisted that the tribunal's mandate is to deal with atrocities on both sides and that she must continue investigating to safeguard the court's credibility and to ward off future revenge killings.
Now Rwanda has apparently won support from the US and Britain in trying to separate Del Ponte from the tribunal, which is based in Arusha, Tanzania. The decision is up to the UN Security Council, which must debate the issue before Sept. 15, when her four-year mandate ends.
On Monday, she will meet with secretary-general Kofi Annan. Her mandate as prosecutor for the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal is expected to be renewed. But several diplomats said that both Britain and Rwanda were pressing for a resolution to create two separate prosecutors, effectively dismissing Del Ponte from the Rwanda tribunal.
Tribunal officials contended that Rwanda wanted her replaced to try to block several pending indictments of members of the government. Both the US and Britain insist that they want all investigations to end by next year.
Some human rights advocates and court officials fear that such a move is tantamount to granting impunity.
Tension between Rwanda and the court is not new. Rwandan and other human rights groups have said the whole institution, not just the prosecutor's office, has made slow progress and suffered from numerous management problems, varying from the incompetence of judges and administrators to shortages of translators and prosecutors. Court staff members said many problems had been remedied in the past year.
But even human rights advocates, critical of the court, said that Rwanda had long resented the tribunal and its ample funding and that it had boycotted its work.
When Del Ponte complained to the Security Council about Rwanda's obstructions last July, the council took six months to respond and issued what the court viewed as a mild reprimand.
Laurent Walpin, the tribunal's former director of investigations, said that among the numerous problems, he found the "erratic cooperation with Rwanda" the most difficult. To appoint a new prosecutor, with investigations due to close next spring, he said, "makes no sense at all now."
"You could have made that case a few years ago, but now it would only bog things down," he said.
It is still unclear when and how the council will vote. Some countries, including the US, are believed to be weary of having a public confrontation with Del Ponte. People close to her have said that the fiercely independent prosecutor may quit if her removal from the Rwanda court threatens to undermine her credibility.