Uganda: Main opposition candidate briefly arrested on election day

KAMPALA, Uganda -- The main opposition candidate for president in Uganda was briefly arrested late Thursday, his aide said, as vote counting started in presidential and parliamentary polls marred by the late arrival of voting materials.

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Kizza Besigye was arrested in the Kampala suburb of Naguru, where he had gone to investigate alleged ballot-stuffing in a house run by the intelligence agencies, said Shawn Mubiru, who is in charge of communications for Besigye's Forum for Democratic Change party.

The police did not respond to requests for comment.

Besigye is Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's main challenger in the polls, in which six other opposition candidates are also standing.

Besigye's supporters said the delays were deliberate and were aimed at favouring Museveni, whose rival is popular in Kampala. The head of the Commonwealth Observer Group, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, called the long delays "absolutely inexcusable."

Several dozen polling stations never opened on Thursday, and the election commission late Thursday said they would be open on Friday

The government also shut down access to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

In Kampala's Ggaba neighbourhood, hundreds of people waited for seven hours for one polling centre to open before voting papers for the parliamentary election finally arrived. When the people found out there were no ballots to vote for president, they overpowered the police, grabbed the ballot boxes and threw them all over a field.

Police fired tear gas, and polling officers fled before any votes were cast.

"If the election is free and fair we will be the first people to respect it, even if we are not the winner," Besigye said Thursday at a polling station in his rural home of Rukungiri. "But where it is not a free and fair election then we must fight for free and fair elections because that is the essence of our citizenship."

In Kampala, the spokesman for Besigye's Forum for Democratic Change said the delays were a "deliberate attempt to frustrate" voters in urban areas where Besigye is believed to be very popular, especially Kampala and the neighbouring district of Wakiso.

"Why is it that in areas where we enjoy massive support, like Kampala and Wakiso, that's where these things are happening?" said Ssemujju Nganda.

As people voted, young men on motorcycles who appeared to support Besigye looked on from a distance, saying they wanted to make sure there was no ballot- stuffing.

Besigye was Museveni's personal physician during a bush war and served as deputy interior minister in Museveni's first Cabinet. He broke with the president in 1999, saying Museveni was no longer a democrat.

Sarah Jackson of Amnesty International said in a statement that closing social media sites was "a blatant violation of Ugandans' fundamental rights to freedom of expression and to seek and receive information."

Later the electoral commission said voting had been extended from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for voters in the Kampala and Wakiso districts, and that voting will also happen Friday in at least 36 polling stations where voting had not taken place at all on Thursday.

More than 15 million people were registered to vote for members of parliament as well as president. Many waited under the hot sun at polling stations that were still not functioning at mid-day. Many of those waiting said they would not leave without voting.

"This is very disappointing but I am going to stay here under the sun until it is my turn to vote," said Fred Mubiru, a taxi driver. "Nothing will discourage me."

Museveni, 71, came to power in 1986 and pulled Uganda out of years of chaos. He is a key U.S. ally on security matters, especially in Somalia. But his critics worry that he may want to rule for life, and accuse him of using the security forces to intimidate the opposition.

Besigye, 59, is running for the fourth time against Museveni. He promised a more effective government, vowing to stem official corruption.

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Associated Press journalists Andrew Njuguna and Josphat Kasire in Kampala contributed to this report.



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