''I think that if Belgian troops had stayed (in Rwanda) we could have saved hundreds of thousands of people,'' incumbent Guy Verhofstadt told the trial of a Rwandan major.
Bernard Ntuyahaga is charged with the murder of Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers who were seeking to protect her at the very start of the genocide in April 1994.
The trial has examined both his acts and the responsibility of Belgium and the United Nations, which critics accuse of abandoning Rwanda and leaving 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus to be massacred.
Verhofstadt, an opposition politician at the time, said he too may well have withdrawn Belgium's troops after the peacekeepers' death had he been in power, but insisted the exit was a mistake.
''I've been to Rwanda and presented my apologies on behalf of the international community and Belgium for this period and I think it was my duty to do so,'' he told the court.
However, Jean-Luc Dehaene, prime minister from 1992 to 1999, insisted Belgium had done nothing wrong, a view shared by his then defence and foreign ministers who also testified on Friday.
Belgium, he said, was ''a little country that did its best'' and responsibility lay with the United Nations.
''The United Nations did not give us a mandate (to stay),'' he said, adding Belgium had no reason to apologise.
Belgium has been seeking justice for its murdered troops for 13 years. Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda dropped charges against Ntuyahaga in 1999.
It is not the first time Rwandans have stood trial in Belgium over the 1994 genocide. Two Catholic nuns, a university professor, and a businessman were sentenced in 2001 to between 12 and 20 years in jail for aiding the mass murders.
REUTERS JK BST2054