Ugandan royal tomb fire stokes tensions between government and king

Ugandan forces shoot at protesters trying to block President from historic site

Ugandan security forces killed two people and wounded five yesterday after fire destroyed historic royal tombs, heightening tension between the government and the powerful Bugandan kingdom.

Witnesses said the shooting happened when security forces were clearing Bugandan loyalists from the charred remains of the tombs where their royalty are buried, so President Yoweri Museveni could visit the site. Red Cross officials carried away a number of people with gunshot wounds.

Police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba said two people were killed at the tombs and five wounded. She said it was not clear who was responsible for the deaths.

The cause of Tuesday's blaze, which destroyed the thatched-roof mausoleum and centuries-old royal artefacts at the Unesco World Heritage Site, has not been identified, but some protesters suspected foul play. "They have a wide conspiracy of destroying everything that marks there was a great kingdom called Buganda, and this is one of them," said loyalist Jemba Erisa.

The Baganda are Uganda's largest tribe and were instrumental in the President coming to power 24 years ago. Mr Museveni based his five-year military struggle in the kingdom's heartland and support by the Baganda has helped him stay in power.

But relations have been increasingly strained since the President last year blocked the reigning Bugandan monarch, or Kabaka, Ronald Mutebi, from visiting a part of his kingdom. The stand-off sparked two days of rioting in the capital, Kampala, during which at least 15 people were killed. Hundreds were arrested and the authorities also shut down the kingdom's radio station for allegedly fanning violence.

Analysts say Buganda is being used by the opposition as a tool for political mobilisation against Mr Museveni and have predicted more turmoil before presidential elections next year.

The Bugandan king wants more autonomous control over resources in his kingdom, such as land and taxes, but the government says he is only a cultural figure and must steer clear of politics.

A Bugandan kingdom official, Charles Peter Mayiga, said the gutted mausoleum was built in 1860 by Kabaka Mutesa I and that its historical and cultural significance was an object of deep reverence by the Baganda people.

The kingdom's leadership was meeting to try to find out what had caused the fire. The police said they had not established how it started. "Our officers are at the scene trying to examine every available evidence and piece together bits of information to establish what clearly happened, but no conclusion has been reached yet," said Judith Nabakooba.

A local daily paper did not rule out arson. "A white numberless pick-up truck reportedly emerged from the tombs shortly after the fire broke out," it said, quoting motorcycle taxi riders near the scene.

Explainer: Kingdom of Buganda

* Buganda is one of four historical kingdoms and home to the Buganda people the largest ethnic group who make up 17 per cent of the population.

* Uganda, the Swahili term for Buganda, was adopted by British officials as the name of the entire protectorate in 1894.

* The kingdoms were abolished by Milton Obote in 1962 but President Museveni restored their cultural and ceremonial powers in the early 1990s.

* Buganda's leaders now want an area of 9,000 square miles to form an autonomous region.

* The King of Buganda is known as the Kabaka.