KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — More than four dozen people have been killed in fighting between Ugandan forces and a tribal militia in a remote district near the border with Congo, Ugandan officials said Sunday as security forces battled armed men protecting a tribal king who is accused of leading the rebels.
At least 55 people, including 41 rebels and 14 police officers, have been killed in clashes in Uganda’s Rwenzori region, police spokesman Felix Kaweesi told reporters. Four police officials and four soldiers have been wounded, he said.
The killings are an escalation of a long-running conflict between Ugandan security forces and rebels who are believed to be loyal to a tribal king, Charles Wesley Mumbere, a critic of the country’s long-time president.
Gunfire rang out outside the king’s palace in the western district of Lasese on Sunday as Ugandan troops tried to disarm Mumbere’s guards and arrest him. Ugandan security forces overwhelmed the guards, broke into the palace and transferred Mumbere to a police post for questioning.
Capt. Arthur Timbaganya, a spokesman for Ugandan troops in the area, said Mumbere was not under arrest, but had been “rescued” from the palace for his own safety. Timbaganya’s account was disputed by the police, who said the king was now in detention.
After the rebels had killed four police officers, security forces launched an operation to disarm the royal guards and other armed supporters of Mumbere in the region, government spokesman Col. Shaban Bantariza told The Associated Press. Most of the killings happened Friday and Saturday, he said.
Mumbere is king of Uganda’s Bakonzo people, and some of his supporters have been calling for secession from Uganda, according to Bantariza, who said he had seen copies of money printed by the secessionist group, which is hoping to create a republic known as Yiira.
Mumbere has denied any role in the attacks on police posts.
Kasese, where Mumbere is based and part of the mountainous Rwenzori region, is about 340 kilometers west of the Ugandan capital Kampala. The area is a hotbed of opposition to President Yoweri Museveni, who lost there in the last presidential polls.
Some of the rebels had climbed high up the Rwenzori mountains and set up military camps from which they were said to run a small government, even collecting taxes from the people they control. The rebels are armed with modern weapons and improvised explosive devices, according to Bantariza.
“They had shut down life in the areas they occupied,” he said. “We shall beat those who want to cause trouble on our land.”
Museveni, in power since 1986, has struggled to win over the support of the Bakonzo people in presidential elections. There are frequent land disputes in the area, with many accusing the government of sponsoring land grabs. A new plan to divide up Kasese into two parts has also been fiercely opposed.
In the 1990s, the area was the scene of a violent insurgency by the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel group that now is based in Congo after being forced out of Uganda.