At least 19 people have died in Uganda over two days as security forces try to quell protests sparked by the arrest of presidential candidate Bobi Wine in the country’s worst unrest in a decade.
Youths burned tires and blocked streets in the Ugandan capital Kampala on Thursday and soldiers marched through the city with armored vehicles, a day after the arrest of Wine, a popular reggae singer who is President Yoweri Museveni’s main rival in the upcoming elections.
“This is a war-like situation, so the army has to deploy,” said BrigFlavia Byekwaso, a military spokesman. “You can see what is happening, people are being stoned, people are being killed, vehicles are being vandalized, tires are everywhere. These things are spontaneous on every street, so the police cannot handle such a situation, ”he told Reuters.
Images posted on social media showed Kampala police firing indiscriminately at people in buildings in view of the protests and unidentifiable men in plain clothes, believed to be security personnel, firing automatic weapons. More than 350 people were arrested, police said.
The exact death toll in the riots, which spread to other cities during the day, is uncertain. Kampala’s main morgue reported receiving 19 bodies, and autopsies revealed causes of death including gunshots, tear gas suffocation and injuries sustained from a “hit-and-run” car accident, reported The Observer, a local newspaper. .
Dr. Byarugaba Baterana, executive director of the Mulago National Reference Hospital in Kampala, told reporters that nine other people who had been admitted to the hospital ward succumbed to the injuries.
Police reported between seven and 16 deaths.
“We want to warn young people who have been lured into illegal activities to desist from participating in such acts,” said Patrick Onyango, a spokesman for the Kampala police. “The joint security teams are aware of the situation and will deal with anyone who tries to destabilize the capital city.”
Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was detained on Wednesday while campaigning in eastern Uganda after authorities accused the 38-year-old man of violating anti-coronavirus measures by holding mass demonstrations.
Moments later, spontaneous protests broke out in Kampala and several other major cities. Security personnel responded with tear gas. A journalist who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said he had seen soldiers firing automatic rifles.
Byekwaso, the army spokeswoman, said both army and police squads had skirmished with protesters in different parts of Kampala. At least two witnesses in the city told Reuters that some streets in the city center were deserted. Schools and universities were reported to have postponed exams scheduled for next week following the outbreak of violence.
The wine has drawn massive crowds and his campaign has shaken the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
Museveni told a rally in the Karamoja region that the protesters were “being used by outsiders… homosexuals and others who do not like the stability and independence of Uganda. But they will discover what they are looking for. We will not tolerate confused people. They are playing with fire. “
Earlier this month, police temporarily blinded Wine when he was arrested moments after he was successfully certified as a candidate in next year’s election.
Security forces have frequently fired tear gas at their demonstrations and detained and beaten their supporters.
In a statement released before Wine’s arrest on Wednesday, police warned that presidential candidates would be arrested if they disobeyed guidelines limiting attendance at rallies to 200 people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Known to supporters as “the president of the ghetto,” Wine is part of a new generation of African politicians who are challenging veteran leaders, hoping to tap into deep dissatisfaction among younger, more educated and often older voters. urban.
He broke into formal politics in 2017 when he won a seat in Uganda’s national assembly, and has since been badly assaulted and detained numerous times.
David Lewis Rubongoya, secretary general of the National Wine Unity Platform party, said Wine’s arrest was unfair as Museveni and his supporters had been holding massive demonstrations.
“This is not about Covid-19. It is about repression… People are very angry and they are right to be angry. People are tired of double standards; They are tired of the oppression and the dictatorship that has caused all these problems in the country, ”said Rubongoya. “Museveni is making threats. But that will not deter us from our mission. We are determined to liberate this country from the dictator and the oppressor. People are tired and fed up. “
Museveni is eligible to seek another term next year after lawmakers removed constitutional age limits for the presidency. The former rebel leader’s party insists he remains its most popular member.
Uganda has never witnessed a peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1962.
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