By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - A Ugandan police officer opened fire at an opposition rally injuring one person, police and opposition said, prompting critics to accuse the government of using violence to intimidate rivals ahead of next year's presidential vote.
Police said they were investigating what they described as an unprovoked but isolated incident, while opposition leaders said it was part of a pattern of intimidation by the government of President Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda for nearly three decades and is expected to seek another term.
International rights groups and local critics have often accused his government of using violence by security personnel to stifle opposition.
The incident came on Wednesday afternoon as hundreds gathered at the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party headquarters to support the candidacy of veteran opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who hopes to face off for a fourth time against Museveni early next year.
The police officer, who has not been publicly identified, shot into the crowd, hitting Godfrey Bbale twice in the chest and then in the buttocks as he attempted to run away, said party spokesperson Francis Mwijukye.
Mwijukye said Bbale was in a critical condition at a hospital in the capital Kampala but was expected to survive.
Police spokesman Patrick Onyango condemned the shooting which he said was under investigation.
"We agree there was no need for our officer to fire on this supporter," he said. The officer, however, had not been disarmed or suspended yet as the investigation was still ongoing, he said.
But Uganda's opposition said the incident was part of a larger pattern of police intimidation ahead of the presidential vote and of police abuse that generally goes unpunished.
"The police's aim is to do the bidding of their master Museveni which is to intimidate our supporters and unleash maximum violence on us," said Mwijukye.
The police have also been accused of harassing supporters of Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister who Museveni sacked in September. Mbabazi has said he will challenge Museveni for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) ticket.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; editing by Edith Honan and Toby Chopra)