KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye was detained on Thursday on charges relating to a fourth round of protests against high prices that left two police officers and one child dead, police said.
Security forces arrested Besigye in Kampala and fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of his supporters. He was bundled into a police van and taken to a heavily guarded courthouse where he was charged with taking part in an unlawful assembly and ordered to be detained until a new court hearing on April 27.
President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, blames drought for high food costs and soaring oil prices for surging local fuel costs. He warned his rival, whom he defeated in a third straight election in February, that his protest marches would not be tolerated.
Museveni, appearing on a local TV show, did not speak directly about the protests but said the government would not reduce taxes on fuel to cut fuel prices.
“We need this money to build your country,” he said.
Consumer price inflation jumped to 11.1 percent in March and is expected to keep rising in coming months — in line with inflation rates across east Africa.
This was the third time Besigye had been arrested and charged in less than two weeks for leading “walk to work” protests against rising transport and food costs. Last Thursday he was struck on the hand by a rubber bullet fired by police to disperse a crowd that had gathered to march with him.
“The institutions of the state are on trial, not me. It’s the police and the courts that are on trial ... this terror will end,” Besigye said.
“The police is using this court to further the abuse of my rights ... I have been arrested three times while proceeding to my duties when I have not done anything wrong.”
Magistrate Justine Atukwasa said she was too busy to hear Besigye’s bail plea. “I have other business and I cannot listen to the bail application now because I don’t have time.”
Two police officers and a child were killed when the protests spread for the second time to Masaka town in southwest Uganda, where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds chanting against high food and fuel prices.
“Police came in to break up the crowds and we had to use tear gas ... four people have been injured and we also had a five-year-old kid who was hit by stray bullets and died,” said Noah Serunjoji, the police spokesman in Masaka.
A senior police source later told Reuters two officers who were stoned by the mob later died in hospital.
In central Kampala about 50 young men, thought to be among the protesters, attacked minibus taxis and stoned several shops, but were chased away by the pro-government stick-wielding militia known as Kiboko (stick) Squad as police looked on.
“Life is hard with the high prices of food and everything. Museveni is rich. I am not,” said opposition supporter Elvis Semuwemba.
Analysts said the protesters were unlikely to prevail.
“The walkers may demonstrate for another week or so but Museveni wants to show he’s in charge. He will prevail through sheer use of force,” said Ugandan political commentator Bernard Tabaire.
“I can’t see (Besigye’s detention) dampening the protests in the short run. But the long run favors the authorities ... The only question is if the protesters will reach a critical mass in terms of size. I suspect not,” said Joseph Lake, Economist Intelligence Unit.
On Tuesday, hundreds marched peacefully over rising fuel and food prices in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and in Mombasa, a day after their government cut fuel taxes to cushion the impact of the rise in prices.
Additional reporting by James Akena and Maya Prabhu; Writing by James Macharia; editing by George Obulutsa and Tim Pearce