A Ugandan military official said Sunday more than 40 gunmen were killed in clashes between Uganda's security forces and a tribal militia near the country's border with Congo, in what appeared to be coordinated attacks targeting police posts and military barracks in three districts.
Ugandan troops killed at least 41 gunmen and repulsed others before containing the situation, Ugandan military spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said.
The death toll from the clashes, which took place Saturday, could rise further as Uganda's security forces attempt to arrest the fleeing gunmen, who are suspected to be radical members of a tribal group that has long felt neglected by the central government.
The attacks took place in Kasese, Ntoroko and Bundibugyo, three Ugandan districts with a history of anti-government insurgency and tensions among rival tribes competing for limited natural resources in a mountainous region of western Uganda.
Bundibugyo, where the most deadly attacks took place, is a frontier district located more than 300 kilometresfrom Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
Fred Enanga, the Ugandan police spokesman, said in a statement early Sunday that at least 12 people — mostly police and civilians — were killed by "thugs" armed with guns, spears and machetes. That figure did not include the 41 gunmen shot and killed by Ugandan forces.
Seventeen of the gunmen were arrested and are in custody, he said.
The attacks were likely carried out by "radical elements" within a group known as Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu, whose members — from the Bakonzo tribe — have long had a tense relationship with the neighbouring Bamba tribe, local police said.
Uganda's military insists recent violence in the region has been sparked by tribal tensions and deny there is a resurgence of rebel activity.
Military officials have recently warned that a Ugandan Islamic extremist rebel group known as ADF, which launched a violent insurgency in the area in the 1990s, is trying to regroup. The group's fighters now operate in neighbouring eastern Congo.
Enanga, the police spokesman, said security officials are questioning the suspects to establish the motive behind the Saturday attacks.
Angelo Izama, a Ugandan analyst with a regional security think-tank called Fanaka Kwawote, said the Bakonzo and Bamba regularly fight over natural resources, especially farmland, and that some may feel that the security forces are not always fair arbiters in such conflicts.
He said it was possible that some members of the local police were being "individually targeted."