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Asians Attacked, Property Looted During Environmental Protest in Ugandan Capital

At least three people were killed, Asian shops vandalized, and several people injured during demonstrations in Uganda's capital Thursday against plans by the government to use part of a natural reserve for sugarcane plantations. Witnesses say at least one of those killed was of Asian origin. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

The protest against the Mehta Group's plan to clear-cut some 7,000 hectares, or one-third, of Mabira Forest began peacefully enough.

But as the demonstration in the streets of Kampala became more rowdy, police lobbed tear gas canisters and fired on the crowd of protesters, injuring at least two people.

During the chaos, some protesters looted Indian-owned shops. The Mehta Group is owned by people of Indian origin.

Philip Karugaba is a lawyer with the Environmental Action Network, an advocacy group that is filing legal action against Uganda's Cabinet for its support of the clear-cutting plan, which still needs the approved of parliament.

He tells VOA that the demonstrations' organizer, the Association of Professional Environmentalists, strongly condemns the violence and would never approve of the targeting of Indians.

"I believe that, unfortunately, the demonstration was hijacked by an unruly mob, who put it to their own purposes," he said. "The group that organized the demonstration is a law-abiding group as we know it."

Karugaba says he thinks the mob had a grudge against Indian people and used the occasion to target them.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is among the biggest supporters of the plan to use land from the Mabira Forest, which has been protected since 1932.

In late December, Mr. Museveni told parliament that Uganda is "a very backward country" because the country is not industrialized, and that the Mehta project would be good for the economy.

But environmentalists disagree. They say last year's drought and power shortages in Uganda are linked to the country's rapid deforestation.

Forest covered 20 percent of Uganda 40 years ago, and now covers just seven percent.

The executive director of the Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment, Godber Tumushabe, tells VOA many Ugandans feel that the government is going against their wishes regarding Mabira Forest.

"We think that this is one other thing that the government is trying to do, which is inconsistent with the law and inconsistent with the constitution," said Tumushabe. "Public opinion in the country is overwhelmingly against the destruction of that natural forest. I think the public is really being pushed to the corner."

BirdLife International, a conservation group, says the Mabira Forest Reserve is home to more than 300 species of birds.

The forest also supports nine species of primate and serves as a reservoir for many of the region's rivers, providing fresh water to an estimated one million people.