By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda's opposition and rights groups on Tuesday accused President Yoweri Museveni's government of training militias to intimidate opposition supporters during next year's elections, a claim denied by the government.
In recent weeks, Ugandan police have been training thousands of civilian youths across the country as "crime preventers" to help with intelligence gathering and security among the local population.
Shaban Bantariza, deputy government spokesperson, said the young men being trained were part of community policing efforts, adding: "There's no militia either existing or being trained anywhere in Uganda".
But the opposition fears the newly-trained contingents could be used to prop up veteran leader Museveni, who is seeking another five-year term in the polls due to be held between February and March 2016.
"Museveni wants to use these militias as a weapon of terror to coerce opposition people into submission," opposition legislator Medard Lubega Sseggona told Reuters. "Whenever Museveni feels threatened he resorts to violence."
Nicholas Opio, executive director of the Chapter Four group that champions civil liberties, said Museveni was creating a civilian "parallel force" that has no hierarchy or clear command to be used in elections.
"They can commit crimes and they can't attributed to the government," he added.
Last month, NTV Uganda local television carried a report in which retired major and presidential advisor Kakoza Mutale was shown training hundreds of youths at a camp in central Uganda.
Mutale said in the report the youths would ensure Museveni wins in the coming election.
Spokesman Bantariza dismissed the opposition accusations as unwarranted but added the government was investigating the group allegedly being trained by Mutale.
"If we find Mutale has violated any laws, he will be brought to book," he said.
The Ugandan opposition frequently complains about intimidation by the police and security agencies, something the government strongly denies.
Analysts say Museveni was likely to face a tough challenge at the 2016 polls from his former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, who was sacked last year amidst a power struggle with Museveni in the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.
Kizza Besigye, who has stood and lost the previous three elections against Museveni, also plans to contest the presidential poll for the fourth time.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Tom Heneghan)