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KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandan security forces shot and wounded at least seven people Wednesday after fire destroyed a royal tomb, heightening tensions between the government and the powerful Bugandan kingdom.
A Reuters witness said the shooting happened when security forces were clearing Bugandan loyalists from the charred remains of the tombs where their royalty are buried, so President Yoweri Museveni could visit the site gutted by fire Tuesday night.
The cause of the blaze which destroyed the thatched-roof mausoleum and many centuries-old royal artifacts at the UNESCO World Heritage Site has not been identified, but some angry protesters suspected foul play.
"They have a wide conspiracy of destroying everything that marks there was a great kingdom called Buganda, and this is one of them," loyalist Jemba Erisa told Reuters at the tombs.
The Baganda are Uganda's largest tribe and were instrumental in Museveni coming to power 24 years ago. Museveni based his five-year military struggle in the kingdom's heartland and support by the Baganda has helped him stay in power.
But relations have been increasingly strained since Museveni last year blocked the reigning Bugandan monarch, or Kabaka, Ronald Mutebi, from visiting a part of his kingdom.
The standoff sparked two days of rioting in the capital Kampala that killed at least 15 people. Hundreds were arrested and the authorities also shut down the kingdom's radio station for allegedly fanning violence.
Medard Lubega, deputy information minister for the Bugandan kingdom, told Reuters there were unconfirmed reports that three protesters had been killed at the tombs Wednesday.
The police were not immediately available for comment.
Analysts said the riots last September were unlikely to be the last turmoil before presidential elections in 2011 because Buganda was being used by the opposition as a tool for political mobilization against Museveni.
The Kabaka wants more autonomous control over resources in his kingdom, such as land and taxes, but the government says he is only a cultural figure and must steer clear of politics.
The violence comes at a time investor interest in east Africa's third biggest economy is increasing following the discovery of an estimated 2 billion barrels of crude oil near the remote western border with Democratic Republic of Congo.
A Bugandan kingdom official, Charles Peter Mayiga, said the gutted mausoleum was built in 1860 by Kabaka Mutesa I and that its historical and cultural significance was an object of deep reverence by the Baganda people.
The kingdom's leadership was meeting to try to find out what had caused the fire. The police said they had not established what started the blaze.
"Our officers are at the scene trying to examine every available evidence and piece together bits of information to establish what clearly happened but no conclusion has been reached yet," said police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba.
Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Charles Dick