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European donors halt aid to Uganda over misspent funds

KAMPALA, Uganda — A scam in which up to $13 million in donor money was embezzled in the office of Uganda’s prime minister has prompted several European donors to freeze aid to Uganda, the kind of action long demanded by transparency campaigners who charge that the money encourages a corrupt system.

In its corruption survey, published Wednesday, Transparency International ranks Uganda at 130 out of 176 countries.

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Even in a country where many have come to take official corruption for granted, the latest scandal — brought to light by the country’s auditor general in October — is remarkable for its details: more than $220,000 spent on gas in four days, millions of dollars diverted to buy luxury vehicles for top officials, millions deposited into individuals’ private accounts.

Because the money had been allocated for the rehabilitation of parts of northern Uganda devastated by decades of warlord Joseph Kony’s brutal insurgency, the scandal has provoked a lasting rage around this country and brought foreign donors to inflict aid cuts .

Roberto Ridolfi, the head of the European Union delegation to Uganda, said the scandal and others before it amounted to ‘‘a breach of trust’’ on the part of Ugandan authorities. Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Britain, and Denmark have already cut or canceled all aid to Uganda over the scam, saying they have lost faith in the government’s capacity to spend money responsibly.

Western donors fund up to 25 percent of Uganda’s budget.

The donors are giving Uganda until April to pay back the money, investigate, and take action against all the suspects.

Critics of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, charge that he protects corrupt but loyal supporters and cannot afford to upset the patronage network that keeps him in power.

Museveni told donors last month that official graft has proved hard to fight because ‘‘the suspected thieves are very cunning.’’ Museveni asked the donors to reconsider the aid cuts, saying ‘‘the fight against these thieves is going on well.’’

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