South Africa says it has evidence that Rwandan diplomats were involved in cases of murder and attempted murder on South African territory.
The announcement by South Africa's justice minister, Jeff Radebe, is a dramatic escalation of a bitter feud between the two countries, and a severe blow to Rwanda's global image, just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The announcement follows a wave of well-organized attacks in South Africa by unidentified assailants who have targeted some of the most prominent opponents of Rwandan president Paul Kagame. Several local reports said the attacks were organized by Rwandan intelligence agents, using the Rwandan embassy in Pretoria as their base.
Last week, South Africa expelled three Rwandan diplomats, but it had not formally explained the expulsions until now.
At a press briefing on Wednesday, Mr. Radebe said South Africa has evidence that the three diplomats were linked to "illegal activities." He specified their activities as "attempted murders, including a murder" of Rwandan nationals.
He was clearly referring to the murder of a prominent Rwandan dissident, former spy chief Patrick Karegeya, who was strangled to death in a hotel room in Johannesburg in January. He was also referring to a political ally of Mr. Karegeya, former Rwandan army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who has been subjected to four attempted assassinations in recent years, including an attack last week.
Six to eight gunmen, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, raided the government "safe house" in Johannesburg where Mr. Nyamwasa was under protection last week, according to South African reports. They searched the house room-to-room, looking for him, but narrowly missed him because he had gone out.
Mr. Karegeya and Mr. Nyamwasa had been close allies of Mr. Kagame in the highest levels of the Rwandan government, but fell out with him and fled to South Africa, where they helped found a Rwandan opposition group in exile. They are believed to have a large amount of secret information about the activities of the Kagame government since its ascent to power in 1994 after the genocide.
Rwanda, for its part, expelled six South African diplomats last week in retaliation for the expulsion of its own diplomats. It accuses South Africa of "harbouring terrorists."
Several senior Rwandan leaders have gloated about the murder of Mr. Karegeya, calling him an "enemy" of Rwanda who deserved to die, and hinting that he was killed for his "betrayal" of his country. "Betraying citizens and the country that made you a man shall always bear consequences to you," said Rwanda's prime minister, Pierre Habumuremyi after the murder.
Mr. Kagame himself said in January that he wished he was responsible for the assassination of Mr. Karegeya. "I really wish it," he told an interviewer, although he denied Rwanda's actual involvement.
South Africa has been angered by Rwanda's assumption that it has the right to assassinate its enemies in South Africa. "We want to send a very stern warning to anybody, anywhere in the world, that our country will not be used as a springboard to do illegal activities," Mr. Radebe said on Wednesday.
Until recently, Rwanda has been among the darlings of Western aid donors, and Mr. Kagame was a favourite of Western politicians, including former U.S. president George Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair. But his image has begun to deteriorate in recent years, and his government was widely criticized for supporting the M23 rebel movement in eastern Congo. A report by United Nations experts concluded that Rwanda was providing military and financial aid to the rebels. Some governments cut off some aid to Rwanda as a result.
The tensions between South Africa and Rwanda are potentially dangerous in the broader African arena, since both are key players in the war in eastern Congo. While the Kagame government has supported the rebels, South Africa has provided thousands of soldiers to a UN force that has attacked the rebels and forced them to retreat.