KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — More than 155 people died in deadly encounters last year between Ugandan forces and people loyal to a tribal king who has since been charged with treason, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday, urging an independent investigation into the killings that shocked this East African country.
At least 140 of the November deaths are attributable to Uganda's security forces while 15 of the victims were security personnel, Maria Burnett, an associate director in charge of Africa at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. Children as young as 4 or 5 were among those killed, with at least 15 still missing.
Uganda's government strongly denied the allegations, saying there was no evidence children were killed. It said Human Rights Watch offered no context about incidents where alleged rebels launched attacks on government forces.
The violence peaked on Nov. 27 when the military and police used force to enter the king's palace in the border town of Kasese in western Uganda. Smoke billowed as the palace burned amid gunfire.
Kasese is about 340 kilometers (211 miles) west of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. The area is a hotbed of opposition to President Yoweri Museveni. Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986, and people in Kasese often complain of marginalization by the central government.
The clashes followed tensions between Museveni's government and Charles Wesley Mumbere, the leader of a tiny mountain kingdom known as the Rwenzururu. Tribal monarchs in Uganda have only ceremonial powers but are influential among their subjects. Mumbere is accused of being the leader of armed tribesmen who threatened state security in a series of violent encounters near Uganda's border with Congo. The government has arrested and charged scores with murder, treason and terrorism. None of the security personnel involved in the clashes has been charged.
"The assault on the palace in Kasese, which killed more people than any single event since the height of the war in Northern Uganda over a decade ago, should not be swept under the carpet," Burnett said. "People in Kasese are still looking for their family members, including children, and they deserve answers and justice for these gruesome killings."
That account differs from the government's version of events— that 103 people were killed, including 16 police.
Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said in a statement that Human Rights Watch had not supplied evidence to back up its allegations and that its report had "several inconsistencies and flaws."
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed more than 95 people in Kasese, including many families of those killed, and reviewed video and photographs of the events.
The rights group said the king's men, armed with tools like machetes, would not constitute an armed group under international humanitarian law. It said Uganda's international partners should demand accountability and an independent investigation into whether the "massacre on Nov. 27 should be characterized as a crime against humanity."
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement Wednesday that the United States is "deeply troubled by the reported disproportionate use of force" by Ugandan forces during the raid on the palace.
"We are particularly concerned by reports that security forces made no effort to remove unarmed people from the compound, which may have contributed to the death of numerous children," the statement said.