By 22 February 2012, at least 30 US military advisers were based in the town of Obo in the Central African Republic (CAR). The Americans set up base away from the Ugandan barracks in the town, in an effort, perhaps, to distance themselves from the increasingly unpopular Ugandan troops. An NGO worker said generally poor behaviour by some Ugandan soldiers, who were seen drunk and with prostitutes in public, coupled with scant LRA activity in the area have caused friction with local communities. Some officials have even called on the Ugandans to leave.
The arrival of the US troops late last year improved relations between the Ugandan soldiers and the local population. Two foreign journalists, who visited Obo recently, said the mood was generally positive, with many people convinced the deployment of US soldiers would spell the end for the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony. While many believe the US forces are conducting joint patrols with Ugandan tracking units in the dense forests of CAR’s Mbomou province, it is unclear what the American soldiers are doing exactly. US officials have sought to maintain operational secrecy while the troops have reportedly asked locals not to talk to journalists or researchers.
While there have been no reported LRA attacks in CAR or South Sudan since 18 January 2012 (when Baroua in CAR was attacked), raids in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have increased this year. At least 12 attacks were reported in the first two weeks of February, all in or near areas where LRA groups have attacked during the last three years. Ngilima, Bangadi, Dungu and areas around Faradje have been consistently targeted by LRA combatants, indicating a return to old bases, particularly in Garamba National Park.
Radio Okapi said the LRA attacked Dungu territory on 11 February, killing two people and abducting 11. But the commander of the ninth military region of the Congolese army, General Jean-Claude Kifwa, denied any LRA presence in the area and blamed the attacks on Congolese bandits. He said a joint operation by the Congolese army, police and intelligence services would target them. Kifwa’s comments were contradicted by testimonies from people who recently escaped from LRA groups based in the DRC.
Congolese officials have previously denied the presence of the LRA in their country for political reasons: President Joseph Kabila’s government does not want Ugandan forces in Congolese territory. Ugandan troops are not officially allowed to enter the DRC, even though the Congolese army units located in areas with an LRA presence are notoriously incapable of dealing with the rebels. Congolese government officials also want US support to strengthen their army.
This refusal to allow Ugandan troops, and by association US advisers, to enter the DRC has impeded the Americans’ drive to remove top LRA commanders from the battlefield. It has become apparent that the LRA is regrouping in northeastern DRC, where it is safe from military offensives because the Ugandans cannot reach it and the Congolese are unwilling or unable to do so.
In early 2012, there was a flurry of diplomatic efforts by US officials, focused partly on supporting the anti-LRA operations. US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns visited Uganda at the end of January and pledged full support for President Yoweri Museveni’s government and the offensive against the LRA. At the same time, the newly appointed US envoy to the Great Lakes, Ambassador Barry Walkley, visited the region, while Congolese newspapers reported a meeting between Congolese authorities and a delegation from the US Africa Command, or AFRICOM, in early February. AFRICOM officials want to create a special battalion based in Kinshasa as a follow-up to the 2010 training in Kisangani of an infantry battalion now deployed to areas with an LRA presence. It is unclear, however, whether the diplomatic efforts have yielded any results.
There is also some concern that Kony might move to South Darfur, an area already explored more than once by LRA fighters. According to testimony from people who recently escaped from LRA groups in CAR, Kony and other top commanders are there while at least two small groups move between CAR and Raja in South Sudan, and South Darfur in Sudan.
Ugandan Colonel Joseph Balikkudembe, the officer in charge of the LRA offensive, said the LRA had become weaker since the arrival of the US troops, citing the fact that women and children had recently died of hunger while in LRA custody. While such occurrences are undoubtedly tragic, they are not uncommon and do not necessarily mean the LRA is losing strength. Even during its peak years in the early 2000s, women and children who were unable to keep up with the fighters died of hunger and fatigue. Balikkudembe’s assertion may indicate a lack of knowledge about his enemy or be a desperate attempt to justify a military campaign that has long stalled: no LRA commanders have been killed or captured since 2009.
Meanwhile in Uganda, former LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo is still in custody despite a ruling from Uganda’s Constitutional Court that he is eligible for amnesty, and one from the High Court saying he should be freed. The Directorate of Public Prosecutions has ignored the January High Court ruling that ordered Kwoyelo’s release, undermining the amnesty process and jeopardizing efforts to peacefully demobilize and reintegrate LRA combatants.
Updated 22 February 2012
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