The Forum for Democratic Change President, Dr Kizza Besigye has, in his first major press conference since returning from a 10-day tour of Karamoja, accused the Uganda People Defence Force of gross human rights abuses during the disarmament programme.
Dr Besigye told journalists at the FDC party headquarters in Najjanankumbi yesterday that the abuses take the form of torture, beatings, and indiscriminate gunning of suspected rustlers.
He cited an incident when the army allegedly used a helicopter gunship against a group of suspected cattle raiders that killed an unspecified number of innocent people.
Defence and Army Spokesman Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye was curt in his response when contacted for a comment telling Besigye to "leave military operations out of politics".
He dismissed Besigye's claims.
"We have been investigated by many human rights organs and proved not to have committed any crime," Col. Kulayigye said yesterday. "Who is Besigye? Is he heading a probe committee or a judicial inquiry?" he asked.
Dr Besigye said although the disarmament exercise had improved security in the region, a lot needs to be done including stopping the UPDF from subjecting civilians in Karamoja to torture, detention, as well as destroying their property.
"It is sad that we have kept quiet when the UPDF has been abusing the rights of the people of Karamoja region," Dr Besigye said.
He said indiscriminate use of helicopters had led to the death of innocent women and children mistaken for rustlers.
Lt. Col. Kulayigye said the only incident where a helicopter was used was provoked by shooting at it by the group it was pursuing forcing the soldiers to shoot back.
"It was the Turkanas who shot at our helicopter and it responded," he denied that innocent people were victims of the attack.
Dr Besigye said the disarmament exercise was ill-conceived because it was not integrated with measures to stop external threats from Kenya and Sudan tribes.
"They are being disarmed without being provided with security," Dr Besigye said, adding; "No social-economic programmes are put in place to coincide with disarmament. This has left ex-cattle rustlers idle, jobless, and with no food."
Dr Besigye said although the government has every right to disarm civilians, its soldiers must obey the law while doing so.
He called for an impartial investigation and also asked the government to discipline or prosecute, all allegations of human rights violations including unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detention.
The army has spent several years trying to disarm residents of the area who use their guns to raid cattle from neighbouring tribes or protect themselves from such attacks. Several reports have criticised the army's human rights record.