The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected an appeal from an elderly pastor accused of contributing to the 1994 genocide in his native Rwanda, clearing the way for the first extradition of an individual by the United States to a U.N. tribunal.

The State Department must now decide whether to proceed with the extradition of Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, 78, a former president of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Rwanda who allegedly led a Hutu mob in slaughtering hundreds of Tutsi civilians.

But Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright indicated today that she is inclined to hand over Ntakirutimana to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which has been established by the United Nations in Arusha, Tanzania. The pastor is being held at the Webb County jail in Laredo, Tex.

"We have . . . been guided by the idea that he should in fact be returned to Rwanda," Albright said following a meeting of African heads of state at the U.N. Security Council. "But I need to go back to Washington and review the whole set of papers involved in this."

Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who is representing Ntakirutimana, had appealed to the Supreme Court on grounds that the United States has no formal extradition treaty with the U.N. tribunal. In refusing to consider the appeal, the Supreme Court apparently accepted the Clinton administration's contention that a 1996 statute, approved by both houses of Congress, provided a sufficient basis for extradition.

The decision was hailed by advocates of the international court who said it would strengthen the tribunals established for both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. "This decision . . . sends an important signal to other nations that the United States is willing to put into practice the same cooperation it asks of others," said Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Clark said the Clinton administration has granted him 10 days to argue his case to the State Department. He said he would seek to convince Albright that his client is innocent but also too old and ill to endure a trial.

The U.N. tribunal indicted Ntakirutimana in June 1996, charging him with genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda which took an estimated 500,000 to 1 million lives.

According to the tribunal, in the spring of 1994 Ntakirutimana lured hundreds of civilians into a church compound at Mugenero, Rwanda. He then led armed Hutu extremists to the site. "They separated the Hutus from the Tutsi and encouraged the Hutus to leave," according to U.S. court papers. "Ntakirutimana then raised an armed mob of Hutus, led them to the complex, and directed the slaughter of the Tutsis."

Ntakirutimana is also charged with leading a unit of Hutu soldiers on a hunt for survivors of the massacre.

The Clinton administration began extradition proceedings in September 1996, following Ntakirutimana's arrest by federal agents in Laredo, where he and his wife had settled with one of his sons, Eliel, a cardiac anesthesiologist and naturalized U.S. citizen.

The Rwanda tribunal so far has indicted 45 suspected war criminals, including 10 former government ministers and Ntakirutimana's other son, Gerard.