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Are resurgent Ugandan rebels backed by Khartoum?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 10 Sep 2009 01:07 PM
Author: Frank Nyakairu
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Between 2004 and 2008, I made six visits to remote bush camps of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), one of Africa's most feared rebel groups.

The camps were deep in the wilds of northern Uganda, northeast Congo and southern Sudan. On each trip, I encountered small bands of dreadlocked child soldiers. Most had been snatched from their homes in northern Uganda and forced to carry arms for the cult-like group that became famous for cutting off the lips of its victims.

On the run from the Ugandan army, their leader wanted for war crimes, the boy-soldiers I met lived off food looted from local villages. They also hunted game with Kalashnikov rifles - antelope, buffalo and the endangered northern white rhino.

That was the LRA I saw between 2004 and 2008.

Today, the group that has long terrorised northern Uganda is on the offensive again. This time, it is said to be a multi-national force, better armed and operating across a swathe of central Africa.

"We have not rescued many Ugandans recently," Ugandan army spokesman Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye said in a telephone interview from Kampala. "We are rescuing Central Africans, Congolese and Sudanese.

"That makes it a regional issue. Through its composition, its operational spectrum and the impact of its military activities, it has been trying to look for survival by spreading its tentacles in the region."

Kulayigye is not alone in saying that a fresh campaign of abductions of children from several countries has made the LRA into a more lethal, regional force.

"They are estimated to be about 2,500 (strong) and operating in two languages, Acholi and Arabic," said a Ugandan intelligence official who declined to be identified.

Acholi - the language of the Acholi people in northern Uganda - is the mother tongue of LRA leader Joseph Kony, a former alter boy and self-proclaimed prophet.

For most of its two-decade history, the LRA has swelled its ranks with forced recruits from his Acholi homeland, even as it terrorised the Acholi population and its neighbours with massacres and mutilations.

But Arabic as an operating language is a new phenomenon. Some intelligence sources say it reflects a renewal of relations with the government of northern Sudan that threatens to destabilise Sudan's own peace process after two decades of civil war.

It wouldn't be the first time the LRA has been accused of playing a role in Sudan's north-south conflict, which killed around 2 million and uprooted 4 million more.

That war ended with a fragile peace deal in 2005, at the centre of which are two upcoming polls: general elections in April seen as key to Sudan's democratic transformation and a referendum in 2011 that is likely to see the mainly Christian south secede from the Muslim north.

What does that have to with the LRA?

The group first emerged in 1992, fighting the Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni, apparently to try to replace it with a regime based on the biblical Ten Commandments.

But Museveni's support for the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the dominant southern rebel group in Sudan's north-south war, reportedly led Khartoum to back the LRA in response, although Khartoum always denied it.

From 1993, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's northern government reportedly armed, trained and gave military intelligence to the LRA to help it take on the Ugandan government and fight a proxy war against the SPLA.

Kony, in a video-taped meeting in 2005, described it as a mutually beneficial arrangement where "we helped the Arabs to fight their war in the south while they helped us to fight Museveni's government".

But over the years, the benefits of fighting Khartoum's proxy war were outweighed by the harm done to Kony's agenda in northern Uganda. Kony lost a lot of good will among former supporters.

And since the end of Sudan's civil war, the LRA could no longer count on safe haven in southern Sudan. Since 2005, it has had to rebase in the lawless jungles of northeast Congo and remote areas of Central African Republic. Now, however, it is back in southern Sudan.

RESURGENT MILITIA

The LRA has never been squeamish in its tactics.

Abducted children as young as eight were forced to wipe out their own families or face death themselves. Girls served as sex slaves for senior commanders. Kony is believed to have once had 70 "wives".

Made up of small bands of child soldiers wielding machetes and Kalashnikovs, the LRA has proved a nightmare for any force in the region to defeat completely.

Today, the Ugandan army says the rebels have bases in Congo's Oriental Province, Sudan's Western Equatoria province and Central African Republic's Haut-Mbomou prefecture.

Uganda's military said on Thursday it had captured in Central African Republic a feared senior LRA rebel accused of leading the massacre of 250 villagers more than 14 years ago.

The Ugandan army, which has pursued the rebels in four countries with little success, also said this week that it had entered Central African Republic under a bilateral agreement with Bangui to fight the LRA.

CHARGES IN COMMON

Kony and Sudanese President Bashir have one thing in common: they are both wanted by the International Criminal court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Hague-based court issued an arrest warrant for Kony in 2005 on 33 counts, while Bashir was indicted this year for crimes in Sudan's western Darfur region, where the United Nations says as many as 300,000 people have died and more than 2.7 million have been driven from their homes.

Most of Africa's leaders have criticised the ICC move to indict Bashir. But Uganda has not, seriously straining relations between the two countries. One diplomat has been quoted as saying that if Bashir visited Uganda for a summit he would be arrested.

"Uganda's and Sudan's relations will remain strained because Khartoum has never closed its liaison office for the LRA and we know it," said the diplomat.

Reports that the LRA in Western Equatoria has rearmed and resumed raids on villages, displacing hundreds of thousands of people are fuelling fears that Khartoum is once again supplying the group with weaponry.

"We have heard the LRA appears to be better armed than it has been in the recent past...but we have no evidence to substantiate those allegations that Sudan is supporting the LRA," EJ Hogendoorn, International Crisis Group's Horn of Africa analyst, told AlertNet in an interview.

And the Sudan Advocacy Group, a lobbying group led by the Washington-based Enough Project, warned on Wednesday: "An upsurge in violence by the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, which the regime consistently used as a proxy during the earlier civil war, worsens an already grim picture for civilian populations and for stability in the south."

LRA negotiators, based in Nairobi, have denied that recent attacks have taken place and that the rebels are seeking a re-alliance with Khartoum.

"All those are just hearsay," Justin Labeja told me in a telephone interview. "The Uganda government is using its militia of former LRA to attack people and claim it is us."

The Ugandan army's 105 brigade, comprised of hundreds of former LRA soldiers, has been used to fight the LRA. Kampala denies the allegations that it has attacked civilians.

With ICC investigators active in Uganda, Congo and Central African Republic, analysts see Sudan - one of the few countries that has not signed the Rome Statute that is the foundation for the ICC - as a perfect safe haven for both Kony and Bashir.

Meanwhile, the LRA's increased attacks in southern Sudan coincide with a rise in tribal local violence in Jonglei, Lakes and Unity States, which have killed 1,200 people since January, according the United Nations.

David Gressly, the United Nations Mission in Sudan's regional coordinator for South Sudan, warned that the violence could mar the country's first general elections in 20 years due next April.

Though the polls are widely seen as Sudan's turning point, most observers fear they could be the country's tipping point.

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