Police take away Ugandan opposition leader Kyagulanyi on his return from abroad

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Police took away Ugandan opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi as he got off a plane at the country’s main airport on Thursday but a police official denied he was under arrest and a government official said he had been taken to his home.

Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi addresses his supporters outside his home after arriving from the U.S. in Kampala, Uganda September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Newton Nambwaya

Kyagulanyi, a prominent challenger to long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni, was returning from the United States, where he received treatment for injuries he said were sustained during torture by security forces. The authorities deny any mistreatment.

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, two hours after Kyagulanyi’s flight landed at Entebbe International Airport, it was unclear where he had been taken after police escorted him from the tarmac after he disembarked his flight.

A police official had said he was being escorted to his home in the capital Kampala and was not under arrest. Shortly afterwards the official, who was not authorised to speak on the record, told Reuters that Kyagulanyi had been taken to a police station in his neighbourhood.

Simultaneously, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo wrote on his Twitter feed that Kyagulanyi was inside his home.

It was not possible to reach any representative of Kyagulanyi for comment, and his whereabouts remain unclear.

Residents in his neighbourhood told Reuters that they had attempted to wait for him on streets near his home but were chased away by security forces.

Several hundred supporters, many of them wearing the color red which has come to be associated with him, gathered outside the police station where they believed he was being held.

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.

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. The legal basis for the escort was unclear, and Kyagulanyi wrote on his Twitter feed before flying home that he should be able to travel freely in his country.

Security forces had deployed around the airport and the highway linking it to Kampala ahead of his arrival to prevent supporters from greeting him. Armoured personnel carriers and police vehicles lined the highway.

Witnesses said the road linking Kampala to Entebbe town about 50 km (30 miles) to the south was cordoned off, with armed police surrounding the airport.

They also 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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