September 20, 2018 / 12:39 PM / a month ago

UPDATE 6-Police take Ugandan opposition leader Kyagulanyi home after returns from abroad

* Musician-turned-MP seen as challenge to president

* Ugandan leader in power since 1986

* Police block roads to airport (Re-casts, adds context)

KAMPALA, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Police escorted opposition politician and government critic Robert Kyagulanyi from the airport to his home after he arrived back in Uganda on Thursday, while his supporters defied a heavy security presence and gathered at his residence to welcome him.

Kyagulanyi, a prominent challenger to long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni, returned from the United States, where he had received treatment for injuries he said were sustained during torture by security forces. The government has denied any mistreatment but says it is investigating.

The return of Kyagulanyi, a 36-year old pop star and reggae musician turned legislator, has rattled the government headed by the 74-year-old Museveni, who leads a nation where nearly 80 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

On Thursday afternoon, several hours after Kyagulanyi’s flight landed at Entebbe International Airport, it was for a time unclear where he had been taken after police escorted him from the tarmac after he disembarked his flight.

The legal basis for the action was unclear and Kyagulanyi wrote on Twitter before flying home that he should be able to travel freely in his country. He has not tweeted since landing in Uganda.

A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Kyagulanyi had been taken to a police station in his Kampala neighbourhood, and journalists and supporters in the area waited outside the station believing that he was inside.

Police later said in a statement he had been “peacefully escorted” home. A representative for Robert Amsterdam, one of Kyagulanyi’s attorneys, confirmed to Reuters that he is now inside his home.

Residents in his neighbourhood told Reuters they had tried to wait for him on streets near his home but were chased away by security forces, though several hundred people later gathered outside the house. Many wore red t-shirts and hats.

The colour has come to be associated with his “People Power” movement, and demonstrators at Ugandan embassies in London, Nairobi and elsewhere have donned the same colour during protests.

Kyagulanyi is widely seen as posing a significant challenge to Museveni, who has ruled since 1986.

His message - that young Ugandans need a dynamic new head of state to tackle the myriad problems they face - has electrified citizens who say they are fed up with corruption, unemployment, and state repression of dissent.

The government denies allegations of corruption and of stifling opposition.

Museveni has won praise in the West for his support against militant Islam and his role as power-broker in the volatile Great Lakes Region. Uganda has also welcomed foreign investors such as France’s Total, China’s CNOOC and Britain’s Tullow as part of a plan to start pumping oil from 2021.

But the government is facing growing criticism from its allies, particularly main donors the United States and the European Union, who have deplored the torture alleged by opposition politicians including Kyagulanyi.

Kyagulanyi attracted a youth following through songs critical of Museveni and his prominence rose due to an incident in August in which his driver was shot dead and he was detained and charged with treason over what authorities said was the stoning of the president’s convoy.

The politician, who has pleaded not guilty to the treason charges, said he was beaten with an iron bar in detention in northern Uganda. The government denies that he was mistreated.

Police had banned rallies to welcome Kyagulanyi home and said on Wednesday that they would escort him to his home in the capital.

Ahead of Kyagulanyi’s arrival, security forces had deployed around the airport and the highway linking it to Kampala to prevent supporters from greeting him. Armoured personnel carriers and police vehicles lined the highway.

Witnesses said that all vehicles leaving Kampala on the road to Entebbe were checked at multiple roadblocks. Police prevented journalists from travelling to the airport to cover the arrival. (Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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