Retreating rebels look for a new hideout

The Lord's Resistance Army, once a powerful rebel force in northern Uganda, is on the run again.

A Lord's Resistance Army soldier poses during peace talks between his commanders ans Ugandan religious and cultural leaders in southern Sudan.
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NAIROBI // The Lord's Resistance Army, once a powerful rebel force in northern Uganda, is on the run again. The resilient band of rebels has pestered three east African governments for more than 20 years until a recent joint military operation caused it to flee its stronghold in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like a mosquito spreading a deadly tropical disease, the LRA has left a trail of death and misery as it heads towards the Central African Republic. "We are certain that the rebels are heading towards the Central African Republic, even if they have yet to reach the border," Mende Omalanga, the communications minister of the DRC, told Agence France-Presse last week. "We hope that the Central African Republic, which has taken steps to counter them, will nab them." The LRA has been holed up in a camp in north-eastern DRC for the past two years while negotiators from the Ugandan government and the rebels worked on a peace deal. When Joseph Kony, the rebel leader, refused to sign the final agreement in November, Uganda, the DRC and South Sudan launched "Operation Thunder Lightning" to root out the rebels. The December operation succeeded in dislodging the LRA from its base, but has not completely wiped out the force, thought to be about 500 strong. In the past month, the rebels have fled the military offensive, massacring almost 450 villagers along the way, according to aid organisations in the remote corner of the DRC. "Over the past two months, villagers have been uprooted because of Lord's Resistance Army attacks," Caritas, the Catholic aid organisation, said in a statement. "The rebels have burnt villages and killed and abducted people who cross their path." The military operation against the LRA is the most significant attempt to crush the rebels in six years. It comes after peace talks in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, broke down after two painstaking years. Mr Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, has said he will not sign the final peace agreement until the indictments are dropped. A spokesman for the LRA said the military operation failed to break the will of the rebel group. "The camps that the military bombed were empty," David Matsanga said in Nairobi recently. "The LRA's morale is high and their interest is peace." Mr Matsanga, who said he is in touch with Mr Kony via satellite phone, said the LRA leader wanted to continue the peace process in a venue outside of South Sudan. He called the South Sudanese vice- president, Reik Machar, who mediated the peace talks, "the biggest betrayer". "Dr Machar has lost moral credibility to continue," Mr Matsanga said. "Kony treats southern Sudan as his enemies. The LRA wants the peace process to continue on a neutral ground with Tanzania or South Africa as host countries." Mr Kony, a self-styled Christian prophet, started his rebellion in northern Uganda in 1987 to fight for the rights of his Acholi people. He has also advocated a spiritual revolution in Uganda and is said to want a constitution based on the Ten Commandments. More than two million people have been displaced in the two decades of fighting. The LRA is notorious for cutting off the limbs of its victims. It is also accused of abducting thousands of children to use as soldiers or sex slaves. If the rebel group manages to cross the porous border and set up shop in Central African Republic, it will be the fourth country to unwillingly host the LRA. After the Ugandan army ousted the LRA from northern Uganda, the rebels set up camps in southern Sudan. The government in Khartoum originally backed the LRA in retaliation against Uganda, which supported southern Sudan's rebel movement. After Sudan reached a peace deal to end its north-south war in 2005, the LRA lost its support from Khartoum and moved to the DRC, where it continued to terrorise villagers. In the past year, the group has abducted 1,000 children and has displaced tens of thousands, according to human rights organisations. The International Crisis Group, a think tank in Brussels, said the international community should get involved in rooting out the LRA or risk the destabilisation of the region. "The UN and the African Union have to sustain efforts simultaneously to end the LRA menace," said François Grignon, the think tank's Africa director. "The longer the LRA is allowed to entrench itself at the common borders of Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic, the more likely it will contribute to serious destabilisation of one or another in the near future." The LRA conflict in north-eastern Congo is separate from the civil war in the DRC's eastern province, where five million have died in a decade of fighting. That war has pitted ethnic-based militias and the Congolese army against each other. mbrown@thenational.ae