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KAMPALA (Reuters) - A war of words between Uganda's main presidential candidates escalated on Friday, sparking fears of Egypt-style street violence should the opposition say the poll was rigged.
Uganda's main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, repeated a warning he made to Reuters last week that Ugandans may overthrow long-standing President Yoweri Museveni with mass public protests if a February 18 poll is not fair.
The once close ally of Museveni elaborated on Friday, saying he would appeal to the public and not to the Supreme Court if he suspected foul play.
"The struggle for change is not mine alone. It belongs to all our supporters across the country," Besigye told a news conference in the capital Kampala.
"If our victory is stolen, it is to the court of public opinion that I will appeal."
Besigye told journalists Uganda had become a "ruthless dictatorship."
Government spokespeople were unavailable to comment.
The 2001 and 2006 polls were judged flawed by the Supreme Court but it upheld Museveni's win, saying that irregularities were not substantial enough to affect the overall result.
Museveni threatened twice in the last month to have Besigye arrested for alleging he had sold Lake Victoria to foreigners. Besigye was arrested during the last elections on charges of rape and treason.
"Besigye may find himself in prison over peddling lies. Election laws don't allow this," Museveni said. "Even if he wins an election based on such lies, the results can be canceled especially if there is evidence to this effect presented to court."
Museveni is respected internationally for his shepherding of the economy, for stabilizing a once chaotic country and for intervening in regional hotspots such as Somalia. Critics say he marries that with domestic repression.
Besigye said the situation in Uganda could not be compared directly to Tunisia or Egypt but that conditions were similarly ripe for public protest.
"But if the question is whether I would support a popular protest against an illegitimate decision of an election? Certainly," he said.
Both Besigye and Museveni on Friday met with the United States' top diplomat for Africa, Johnny Carson.
U.S. diplomatic cables, published in December by WikiLeaks, said the opposition were "fractured and politically immature" and that it was "by no means clear (they) would improve governance in Uganda in any way."
Besigye dismissed U.S. opinion of one of its key allies in East Africa. Museveni's troops make up the bulk of an African Union peacekeeping force that is the only thing protecting Somalia's besieged government from falling to Islamist rebels.
"It's their perfect right to form whatever opinion they form, whether it's uncomplimentary to me or to our leadership," Besigye said.
"But I am keenly aware the U.S. has made very many grave mistakes in their judgments, so I exercise my right to choose how I esteem their judgment."
Editing by George Obulutsa and Philippa Fletcher