Riots broke out in downtown Kampala on Thursday as another round of street demonstrations over commodity prices spread after a leading opposition politician was arrested for the third time in two weeks, significantly heightening tensions here.
President Yoweri Museveni addressed the nation on Thursday evening, defending his government’s action against protesters and the spending decisions that the protesters blame for the rising cost of living.
“Nobody can take over power through an uprising,” Mr. Museveni said in televised remarks that were transcribed by New Vision, a state-owned newspaper. “Whoever thinks like that, I pity such a person.”
Demonstrations over rising food and fuel prices started two weeks ago, spearheaded by two politicians who lost to Mr. Museveni in elections in February.
Despite the meager size of the protests, government security forces have responded with overwhelming force, killing at least five people since the protests began, including a young child, and wounding and arresting hundreds more.
On Thursday, the former presidential candidate who is the protest leader, Kizza Besigye, was bundled into a police van and taken to court within minutes of stepping onto a Kampala street. But unlike his previous arrests during the protest movement, Mr. Besigye was not granted bail on Thursday, and was later whisked away to a prison far outside of the city.
Norbert Mao, another jailed former presidential candidate who is leading protests, was transferred to the same prison outside of Kampala, indicating a growing sensitivity on the part of the government to the politicians’ provocations and influence.
Until Thursday, the protesters in Kampala seemed only as bold as the senior politicians often at the front of the march. But with the leaders jailed, the demonstrations on Thursday grew on their own and evolved into a violent parade of protesters, some holding up banners attacking government corruption, and many with rocks.
“The situation is pushing us,” said Jamo Luyombya, 24, a day laborer. “They are controlling us with the power of the gun, but not with their power of love.”
In Kampala, heavily armed soldiers and police officers fought running street battles with stone-wielding protesters through a popular market as thousands stood on rooftops and balconies to watch.
In the town of Masaka, far from journalists covering the protests in Kampala, a 2-year-old was killed after being shot in the chest and head when the police opened fire with live ammunition near a crowd of unarmed protesters, according to Ugandan news reports.
Many more were reported wounded in Masaka, and two police officers were hospitalized after being severely beaten by protesters there, the police said. A news report said that the two officers had died on the way to the hospital.
“The Ugandan government must immediately end the excessive use of force against protesters,” Amnesty International said in a statement on Thursday. “The police have a duty to protect themselves and uphold the law, but it is completely unacceptable to fire live ammunition at peaceful protesters.”
The events could prove pivotal for a movement that so far has failed to gain the same momentum and social cohesion as protests over similar concerns in northern Africa.
“The rioting shows that people need change of government,” said Annek Cabine, a bystander at the market where the protest came through. “Otherwise, this problem could become like Libya.”
But many still see the protest movement as contrived, propped up by politicians bitter over brutal electoral losses. Others wonder whether it has a chance of displacing Mr. Museveni, who has been in power for a quarter-century.
“The key to regime change is of course the army,” said Dr. Elliot Green, a Uganda specialist at the London School of Economics, who said that Mr. Museveni had “done well” in keeping the army “in his pocket.”
But Dr. Green said Africa had a long history of urban food riots that brought down governments.
“Obviously the current situation in Burkina Faso should also worry Museveni, where a riot by soldiers was sparked by a food riot,” said Dr. Green. “Museveni has a lot to be worried about.”