US officials see hope for an end to brutality in Uganda. Nation's President has moved to end rights abuses, corruption

Up to 800,000 people have been killed in the fertile East African country of Uganda - by government brutality, tribal animosity, and civil strife in the 25-odd years since the country's independence. According to United States officials and international human rights organizations, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in recent years by government forces under the regimes of Milton Obote and Lt. Gen. Tito Okello.

The killing rivaled the genocide in Cambodia and left the economy in shambles, one US official says.

Now, there is hope that responsible leadership has returned to Uganda.

President Yoweri Museveni, who fought his way to power in 1986, has won a good degree of confidence from key Western countries and international financial institutions.

He has taken steps to curb human rights abuses, to end rampant corruption, and to get Uganda's shattered economy back on track. He is also trying to overcome tribal and religious divisions with a strong nationalist appeal.

However, US officials caution that the situation remains touch and go. This is largely because of pressures generated by the continuing insurgency-fueled troops of former regimes.

The fighting is keeping up to 50,000 troops in the field, according to press reports.

President Museveni visited Washington earlier this month and was received by Vice-President George Bush, the acting secretary of state (George Shultz was abroad), and congressional leaders. Mr. Museveni also conferred with World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials. He received clear support for the thrust of his policies and friendly warnings about not backsliding.

The Ugandan President brought a simple message to the US - he does not want US handouts, he wants a good trading arrangement.

``Aid cannot rule a country. This is nonsense,'' Museveni told a press conference here.

Uganda needs basic equipment and technology to get its economy going again and to make the $200 million yearly payments left by his predecessors, he says. But with a trading relationship, he adds, Uganda can repay with goods as it rebuilds. This will lead to ``mutual benefit'' for the US and Uganda, he says.

Museveni says Uganda is committed to carrying out an IMF economic reform package negotiated in May. That agreement led to several hundred million dollars in development assistance and a restructuring of some outstanding debt.

The success of the program, however, remains dependent upon continued pragmatic policies, control of corruption, and political stability, US Africa and development specialists say.

His forces have ``thoroughly'' defeated rebel forces in the north of the country, and is pursuing them with regular clashes in the east, Museveni told the press conference.

He expresses hope that Kenya, his eastern neighbor, is finally cracking down on rebel groups crossing the border and killing village leaders in Uganda.

The worry in Washington is that, under the pressure of civil war, the poorly trained Ugandan Army will attack civilians and the situation once more deteriorate.

A spokesman for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International says the group has received new reports of civilians being killed and tortured by troops in rebel areas and of 800 people detained without charge or trial in the capital.

US officials say reports so far suggest these are isolated acts by undisciplined troops and the matter was raised with Museveni.

The US, they say, continues to have confidence in Uganda's new President and is looking for ways to be supportive.

A mark of this confidence, the US officials add, is US willingness to accept Uganda's barter relationship with Libya, whereby Uganda trades agricultural products for oil and reportedly some military equipment.

Museveni says this $60 million arrangement provides cheaper oil and allows Uganda to rebuild its market structure and export capacity.

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