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Army Ousts Uganda's President : Mutiny in North Spreads to Capital; Obote, Aides Flee

July 28, 1985|CHARLES T. POWERS | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — President Milton Obote, a powerful political figure in Uganda since the days before the East African nation became independent from Britain, was overthrown Saturday in a coup led by rebellious elements of the army, a radio broadcast from the capital of Kampala announced.

The broadcast--by an army officer at 11:30 a.m., local time--proclaimed that the military had brought a "total end of Obote's tribalistic rule."

The announcement triggered gunfire and looting in the center of the capital, according to reports reaching neighboring Kenya by telephone and radio. By nightfall, the sporadic shooting had abated, and the rebel forces appeared to have established control, news agency reports said.

May Have Fled Country

Obote, 60, who was overthrown once before by his then-chief of staff, Idi Amin, in 1971, was reported to have fled the country. His whereabouts, however, were not known. Vice President Paulo Muwanga and half a dozen Cabinet ministers were also said to have fled.

Armed soldiers, apparently intent on looting, assaulted the building housing the U.S. Information Service's offices in Kampala, according to reports here and in Washington. For a brief time, the agency's director, Steadman Howard, and four Ugandan staff members barricaded themselves in their second-floor offices, the reports said. Later, the White House and State Department said that all U.S. government personnel were safe.

The announcement of Obote's overthrow said that power had been seized by forces under the command of Brig. Basilio Olara Okello, who for the last week has been leading a mutiny of army units in northern Uganda. It was not immediately clear whether the general or his superior, Gen. Tito Okello (the two are not related), is in control.

Appeals to Rebel Forces

Tito Okello, the commander of the army, reportedly met with his top officers during much of the day Saturday. Radio announcements appealed to rebel forces headed by former Defense Minister Yoweri Museveni, who has waged a long-running guerrilla war against the Obote government, to lay down their arms and join forces with the army officers.

(United Press International reported from Stockholm that Museveni welcomed Obote's overthrow but warned that his forces will have to be included in any solution to the nation's ongoing state of crisis.

("The guerrilla force will be part of any solution," he said on a Swedish radio broadcast. "If anyone tries to block that, we shall smash him, like that which smashed Obote.")

One unofficial report said Obote had fled across Uganda's eastern border to the Kenyan city of Kisumu. Another report, from a usually reliable Ugandan source in Nairobi, said the ousted leader left in his presidential jet late Friday night or early Saturday morning, and that his destination was unknown.

The same source said he had learned that Obote withdrew a large sum of money from Uganda's central bank during the day Friday, apparently anticipating that his remaining hours in office were limited.

Wife in Seclusion

Obote's wife, Miria, who has been attending the U.N. Decade for Women conference here in Nairobi, remained in seclusion Saturday at the home of the Ugandan high commissioner (ambassador) and could not be reached for comment. Kenya police were posted at the gates of the envoy's residence.

Kampala radio, which spent most of the day playing disco music and other hit tunes, announced that the country's borders had been sealed, that Entebbe airport was closed and that a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in force.

Political disintegration in Uganda--a continuing fact of political and economic life even as Obote sought to restore order lost during Amin's bloody rule--accelerated over the last week.

On Wednesday, the nation's Roman Catholic cardinal, Emmanuel Nsubuga, urged Obote to resign and turn the government over to a caretaker commission. The prelate, in an open letter to the nation, charged that during Obote's regime "there is not a single Ugandan who has not lost a relative or a close friend. There are widows and orphans everywhere in the country."

His criticism was lent emphasis by reports of an army mutiny by Acholi tribesmen in units in the north. Okello, commanding the rebellious troops, called for the resignation of Obote's Cabinet. At the same time, rebel Museveni's Uganda National Resistance was reported to have taken control of two major outlying towns, Fort Portal and Tororo--at opposite sides of the country.

Army Base Overrun

On Friday night, diplomatic and relief-agency sources said, the rebellious military units overran the Uganda army base at Bombo barracks, about 30 miles north of Kampala, and on Saturday morning advanced to the capital, which fell easily.

Obote has headed an embattled regime since the day he resumed power, in bitterly disputed elections, in December, 1980.

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