Five years since the killing of six Congolese, including a three-year-old child on Lake Albert, new information published today shows Heritage Oil and Gas, a company which was once the biggest operator in Uganda’s fledgling oil sector, played a key role in triggering the fatal UPDF operation which led to their deaths.
The Ugandan army has always denied there were civilian deaths, insisting even last evening that this was an operation in which its forces exchanged fire with Congolese troops.
But two previously unreleased photos – showing bloodied civilian casualties in a wooden boat, and six coffins - start to tell the story about what may have happened on September 24, 2007.
The incident, in which the Ugandan army opened fire on a Congolese passenger ferry, was a direct consequence of the British oil company making a request for military assistance after its Ugandan exploration team had strayed over the DR Congo border.
Despite the controversy over what happened on September 24, 2007, no full investigation was pursued by Heritage or Uganda.
Corporate Watch, a UK research group, is today publishing material that exposes a likely attempt at a cover-up and raises further concerns over oil production in the Great Lakes region.
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But when contacted yesterday, Army Spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye rejected the information provided in the new report as false. “It is twisting the facts to suit interests that are only known to the writers and I condemn it with the contempt it deserves,” Col Kulayigye said in a telephone interview.
“If we were the ones in the wrong, the standard procedure is that we promise an investigation into the matter, and still produce the findings of the investigations to the affected parties.”
Col. Kulayigye also said he does not remember any civilian deaths but he will have to “cross check with the records to see if there were any.” The UPDF has, in public, said it was attacked by two Congolese army soldiers on the ferry who refused to give up their AK-47s and disputed that anyone had been killed. But Congolese witnesses have accused the UPDF units which reportedly arrived in three patrol boats of firing indiscriminately almost as soon as they arrived.
A UN fact-finding report, seen by Corporate Watch, also reveals that a three-year-old child was among the dead. The Ugandan military is reported to have confirmed to the UK High Commission in Kampala at the time that its soldiers were on a “rescue mission” to help the Heritage team when it encountered the Congolese boat, according to a British foreign office email sent by a Mr John Hamilton in 2007 and obtained through a Freedom of Information request by oil watchdog, Platform.
Leaks to public
Mr Hamilton was the second secretary at the UK High Commission at the time in Kampala.The email was the first public revelation of information reportedly exchanged between the British government and the Ugandan military about the incident.
Yesterday, an information officer at the UK mission declined to comment, saying he would pass on Daily Monitor’s request for an interview to his superior. No response had been received by press time.
A September 26 leaked US diplomatic cable released by whistleblower website wikileaks also confirms Heritage “mistakenly thinking that the approaching (UN) boats belonged to ‘negative forces’ put out an SOS call to which the UPDF’s patrol boats responded”. The cable also quotes information about a high ranking Uganda military officer directing the UPDF patrol boats not to approach Kasenyi.
The new evidence directly contradicts Heritage’s claim at the time that the deaths were a “separate, unrelated, isolated incident” involving “no employees or subcontractors” of the company.
Oil production is due to begin later this year after a decade of controversial exploration. Heritage’s former partner, Tullow Oil, was a 50-50 partner in Block 3A when the incident occurred, raising questions about what representations they made to Heritage, which was the operator on Block 3A, after the deaths became known.
When contacted, Tullow Oil, which took over operations from Heritage in 2010, distanced itself from any wrongdoing at that time, and in that particular incident.
The oil company’s spokesperson, Mr Jimmy Kiberu, told Daily Monitor from Nairobi that at the time the incident happened, “it was entirely Heritage in that area because we had not acquired its rights and our operations were entirely distinctive from theirs.”