At least one man was beaten to death as thousands of people converged on Lira town on Wednesday morning to protest against the government’s "failure to protect its people from insurgency" and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army's (LRA) massacre of more than 200 internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the weekend.
Security sources said the man, from the Acholi tribe from which most of the LRA's senior commanders are drawn, was killed by protestors wielding clubs and planks of wood. There were reports of other beatings and deaths as police attempted to break up the protest.
The crackle of gunfire could be heard throughout Lira town, 380 km north of the capital, Kampala, as police tried to disperse the protestors, who, undaunted, continued to shout and dance as bullets kicked up the dust around them.
Wearing T-shirts or traditional African dress, the protestors flooded in from the town and surrounding areas, running, chanting slogans in the Luo language against both the government and the LRA. They carried branches broken off from surrounding acacia trees, and banners calling on President Yoweri Museveni to resign.
The protestors, who turned violent, smashed cars and beat up other people. They also smashed the windows of the district commissioner's office, after failing to find him, and vandalised other buildings. Shops that tried to open for business were forcibly closed by protestors.
One Uganda People's Defence Force soldier wearing civilian gear but carrying his gun shook his head as he watched protestors smash his car windscreen. "Why are they blaming us?" he shouted. "I have also had three of my own children abducted by the rebels."
Museveni, who has camped in the region to "oversee operations, so that we can finish these bandits", had on Tuesday in a rare shift in the tone of government rhetoric, apologised to the victims of the massacre and expressed regrets at the army’s failure to protect them.
"It is very sad, and on behalf of the army I would like to apologise to the people," he said at Lira hospital. "The mistake was the army’s – they did not coordinate well. But this is a long struggle and we shall overcome it, as we have overcome previous challenges."
He spoke before touring the areas worst affected by the conflict. A convoy of some 30 vehicles carrying military officials and press later made its way along the dirt tracks leading to the north of Lira, towards the northern border with Pader District, and stopped at a military base.
On the way, Museveni stopped to listen to the concerns of villagers living in unprotected areas. They told of how they were too scared to leave the village to get food. Museveni said: "I shall arrange escorts for you to get food."
Another group in a nearly deserted village was placed on the presidential convoy and taken to a trading centre to join other IDPs. "We shall move you until you are safe and arrange food convoys for you," he promised.
In the most devastating massacre of civilians so far during the 18-year conflict in northern Uganda, about 300 LRA rebels, dressed like regular army soldiers and armed with assault rifles and artillery, attacked the Barlonyo camp, 26 km north of Lira town, and overpowered the local Amuka militia posted there to protect it.
The rebels burned many of the IDPs there alive by setting fire to their thatched huts after ordering them into their homes at gunpoint. Other IDPs, who were trying to flee, were shot, bludgeoned or hacked to death by the rebels wielding clubs, machetes and AK-47s. Local leaders counted at last 192 bodies at the scene.
On Tuesday, Roman Catholic missionaries said 32 more bodies had been discovered near the site of Barlonyo camp. Meanwhile, another five people among the injured in Lira hospital had died, bringing the total death toll to 257.
Following the incident, scores of IDPs in camps near Lira town, took flight to seek refuge in the town centre, alongside students from a nearby boarding school, who also flocked in to join the thousands of other IDPs already living there.
Relief workers from UN agencies and various NGO's have sent food, non-food items and staff to assist the IDPs. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan strongly condemned the "senseless massacre", while human rights groups called for security to be restored in the region.
Up to 1.4 million IDPs are living rough in northern and eastern Uganda, 300,000 of them in nine camps in Lira town alone, and another 200,000 in more than 10 camps in rural areas north and east of the town. Barlonyo camp was home to 4,800 people.
The cult-like LRA, led by a reclusive mystic, Joseph Kony, say they want to topple the government, which is dominated by southerners, and restore power to the northern people. Yet most of the group's atrocities are committed against defenceless civilians, usually fellow Acholis. Kony claims to have magic powers derived from the Holy Spirit, and manipulates beliefs in witchcraft to instil fear in his followers.