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Rights group says Ugandan army killed civilians

The Ugandan army tortured and unlawfully killed civilians while carrying out a disarmament programme in the country’s troubled Karamoja region, an international human rights group said on Tuesday.

According to a report based on 50 interviews with witnesses by United States-based Human Rights Watch, Ugandan soldiers opened fire on children — killing three; crushed homesteads with armoured personnel carriers; and severely beat men during the army’s law-enforcement operations.

”We came out of the village with our parents. I was following my mother and father, and I got shot. My mother was shot in front of me and fell down. Then I was shot,” said one child who the group says fled during a cordon-and-search-operation. The child’s name was not given in line with usual human rights guidelines intended to protect witnesses from potential reprisals.

The army denies abusing human rights.

Karamoja is an impoverished, drought-ridden area along Uganda’s north-east border with Kenya plagued by constant insecurity. It has been a trafficking point for small arms from war-ravaged Somalia. Many of these weapons are bought by cattle rustlers who carry out raids in neighbouring villages.

For several years, President Yoweri Museveni’s government has been carrying out an aggressive campaign to disarm the Karamojong people, but those efforts have only increased tensions. Last year, the United Nations Development Programme halted a voluntary disarmament programme in the region amid reports of rampant rights abuses by government troops.

”The Ugandan government has every right to get guns out of the hands of ordinary citizens,” said Elizabeth Evenson, a researcher for the report in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, ”but its soldiers must still obey the law.”

The report acknowledged that in recent months operations by the army had been less violent with far fewer cases of human rights violations reported. But it urged the government to prosecute more soldiers accused of committing abuses in the line of duty.

”It’s good that the Ugandan army is trying to control its soldiers during disarmament operations, but abuses are still taking place,” Evenson said. ”If these abuses continue to go unacknowledged and unpunished, future abuses are inevitable.”

Ugandan army spokesperson Major Felix Kulayigye said, however, that some of the witness accounts in the report had been fabricated.

”We are not the kind of fellows to open fire on children,” he said. ”Our soldiers receive training on human rights issues, and anyone found in violation of these is punished accordingly.”

Rebels in northern Uganda signed a truce last year with the government aimed at ending a brutal 19-year conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives. — Sapa-AP

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