KAMPALA - Uganda has set up a specialist tourism police force as part of counter-terrorism measures, amid warnings of attacks by Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab, police said Friday.
"The tourism police is important because it counters threats of terrorists who might want to target tourists when they are in the country," police spokesman Patrick Onyango told AFP, as the first officers entered into service.
Tourism is the east African nation's second largest foreign exchange earner, estimated to be worth $662 million a year (480 million euros), according to official statistics.
Uganda this week issued renewed warnings that Shebab extremists were plotting to use fuel tankers as bombs "to cause extensive damage to people and property".
Shebab bombers killed at least 76 people in restaurants in the capital Kampala in 2010, in retaliation after Uganda contributed troops to the African Union force fighting the Islamists in Somalia.
"The tourism police is almost a stand alone force, but under the remit of counter-terrorism" unit, Onyango added.
"The force has been deployed in areas visited by tourists like the national parks, tourism sites and major hotels."
An attack in 1999 by Rwandan Hutu rebels on Uganda's Bwindi forest, where tourists flock to track endangered gorillas, hit the country's tourism sector hard. Eight foreign tourists and four Ugandans were killed in that attack.
Over 300 new officers for the force will graduate later Friday, although Onyango said he could not give the total size of the team for security reasons.
Uganda's Minister for Tourism Maria Mutagamba said the force was to "guarantee safety for tourists" by boosting security as part of "expanded anti-terror surveillance in Uganda."