Ugandan President in Israel for Arms Shopping

Yossi Melman
Ha'aretz Correspondent
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Yossi Melman
Ha'aretz Correspondent

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who arrived in Israel on Monday, is making a feverish attempt to buy weapons here.

Three of the five days he will spend in the country will be devoted to tours of Israel's defense industries, including Israel Aircraft Industries and its various subsidiaries and the Soltam plant in Yokneam, which makes mortars.

Museveni will also go for a sail on one of the navy's Super-Dvora ships, attend an air show of pilotless drones and observe a firing exhibition at an Israel Defense Forces base. Indeed, the trip was arranged by an arms merchant, Amos Golan of the Silver Shadow company, who represents IAI and other Israeli defense industries in Uganda.

The president, a former defense minister, is interested in purchasing pilotless drones, ships, mortars and radar systems. He also wants to arrange for more of his nation's planes to be upgraded. Six years ago, Uganda signed a $25 million contract with IAI for the upgrading of 12 MiG-21 planes, but a defense source said the contract is being implemented very slowly. According to an official Ugandan publication, Ugandan pilots trained here in May 2002.

Museveni's interest in buying arms stems from two facts. First, Uganda is located at a key juncture between northern and central Africa, with the result that it has been involved in almost every tribal or ethnic conflict in the region in recent years, including those in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.

In addition, ever since Museveni took power in 1986, the government has been embroiled in a bloody civil war with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a fundamentalist Christian group that claims to base itself on the Ten Commandments. In reality, the group's ideology is a rather odd jumble - soldiers in its training camps, for instance, also study the Koran - and its brutal practices include kidnapping children in order to brainwash them into serving as soldiers and kidnapping women to serve as sex slaves.

A few months ago, when the LRA attacked a village in northern Uganda, it killed some of the residents, cut them up, cooked them and then forced the other inhabitants to eat them - after which it killed the rest of the inhabitants.

But despite the emphasis on defense ties, Museveni's visit also has a diplomatic component. On Monday, he met with President Moshe Katsav, and Tuesday he met with both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Relations between the two states have been gradually improving," said Yaacov Amitai, Israel's nonresident ambassador to Uganda, who is accompanying Museveni on his visit.

Amitai said that bilateral trade between the two countries is on the rise: Israeli exports to Uganda, mainly agricultural equipment, currently total some $4 million a year, and two Israeli companies, Solel Boneh and Tahal, recently won major contracts to pave roads there. Israeli imports from Uganda - of which coffee is a major component - total about $1 million a year.

In addition, the Foreign Ministry stepped up its technical aid to Uganda last year: Some 30 Ugandans recently completed a course in agricultural management here, and a delegation of doctors and nurses will soon fly to Kampala to teach a course on preparing for medical emergencies.

The fact that Museveni is a devout Christian has helped to strengthen his feelings toward Israel. In 1999, he made a private pilgrimage to Bethlehem, and this time as well, he plans to visit various Christian pilgrimage sites, including the Jordan River.

Museveni is considered one of the most important African leaders, as well one of the longest-serving: He has controlled his country for the last 16 years. Though he was elected to his post, he has been accused of having manipulated the elections. He has also been harshly criticized both at home and abroad for clamping down on freedom of the press, including by arresting journalists.

Museveni does not appear overly fond of the media: He agreed to meet with Israeli journalists only under pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, changed the time of the meeting repeatedly on short notice, cut the meeting short when it finally did occur, and canceled a scheduled interview with Ha'aretz 15 minutes before it was to take place.

Uganda is considered an island of relative stability in Africa. Israel and Uganda established diplomatic relations in the early 1960s, and Israel viewed the country one of the keys to advancing its interests in Africa.

Israeli companies built Uganda's airport and many of its roads, and Israeli army, police and Shin Bet instructors have helped train their Ugandan counterparts. Even dictator Idi Amin underwent paratrooper training in Israel - before severing ties with Jerusalem in 1972.

Bilateral relations reached a low point in 1976, when Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France plane to Uganda's Entebbe Airport and Israel sent a commando force into the country to seize the airport and rescue the hostages. But Amin was deposed in 1979, and many Ugandans now say the Entebbe raid helped to bring about his downfall. However, diplomatic relations were restored only in 1994.