YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ruthless Rebels of Uganda Appear to Be Losing Steam

The Lord's Resistance Army is running short of fighters and bullets. Hopes for peace grow.

October 10, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

GULU, Uganda — Olanya Kasimiro thought he would never escape the Lord's Resistance Army when the rebels kidnapped him as a young boy in 1997 and forced him to join their cult-like movement.

Three months ago, however, Kasimiro simply walked away from his rebel camp. The 18-year-old former fighter said the militia he left behind was running short on bullets, lacking medicine to treat the sick and scrambling to dig up emergency weapons caches buried around northern Uganda.

"They are much weaker," he said.

One of Africa's strangest, oldest and most ruthless rebel armies appears to be fighting for its survival, raising hopes that the nearly two-decade conflict in northern Uganda might soon come to an end.

Once numbering more than 10,000, the LRA's troops have fallen to fewer than 500, according to Ugandan and Western sources, with fighters usually operating in groups of no more than five.

Last week, the International Criminal Court issued long-anticipated arrest warrants for five LRA leaders, including its commander, the self-proclaimed Christian prophet Joseph Kony. The indictments probably spell the end of peace talks.

Last month, at least 120 LRA soldiers and their families abruptly fled their longtime base in southern Sudan and crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park. Led by LRA deputy Vincent Otti, who is also named in the International Criminal Court indictment, the contingent asked for asylum but then refused to surrender its weapons to Congolese and United Nations troops.

Reports over the weekend quoted Congolese witnesses as saying some of the fighters had returned to Sudan, but Ugandan officials expressed skepticism.

"They had to run to Congo," said Lt. Col. Shaban Bantariza, the Ugandan Defense Ministry spokesman. "They are taking flight."

Many observers view the attempted relocation to Congo as a sign of desperation, providing a window of opportunity to kill or capture some of the surviving LRA fighters. But the move into volatile Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is threatening to further destabilize the region.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has said if the Congolese army doesn't apprehend the rebels, he'll send his army across the border to do the job.

"We can't accept the status quo," Bantariza said. "We can't allow our enemy to rehabilitate themselves just [12 miles] over the border."

Talk of a cross-border incursion stirs memories of 1998, when Uganda and Rwanda invaded Congo. The two nations claimed to be chasing anti-government rebels, but Congolese accused the countries of invading to plunder gold, diamonds and other mineral wealth. The invasion sparked a four-year conflict that became known as Africa's First World War, in which an estimated 4 million died, mostly from disease and starvation.

Last week, Congolese leaders, backed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, warned Uganda against crossing the border to capture the rebels.

More than 2,000 Congolese soldiers were deployed to disarm or drive out the LRA fighters. At the same time, hundreds of Ugandan soldiers are mobilizing along the northern stretch of their country's border with Congo.

"This has the danger of reigniting regional tension," said one Western diplomat in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his government's policy on speaking with the media.

First formed in 1987, the LRA is led by Kony, an enigmatic soldier who claims to possess mystical powers. Kony has said he was told by God to liberate the Acholi tribe of northern Uganda by overthrowing the government and installing a regime based upon the Ten Commandments.

But the LRA became better known for human rights atrocities, attacking the civilians it claimed to protect. An estimated 30,000 children have been kidnapped over the last two decades, human rights groups say. Boys are conscripted as soldiers and girls used as sex slaves.

Amid a wave of bloody attacks in which LRA fighters cut off victims' lips, limbs and breasts, more than 1.6 million people fled their homes. Most relocated to refugee camps that now house 90% of northern Uganda's population.

Pressure began to build on the LRA this year after the collapse of a cease-fire agreement. Two top deputies defected, and the government said it killed a third last week.

The biggest blow, however, has been the peace process in neighboring Sudan, where Kony has hidden from Ugandan soldiers for years. In addition to providing a haven, the Arab-dominated Khartoum government has been accused of supplying the LRA with weapons, food and training.

The Sudanese government has denied the allegations, but Ugandan and Western officials say Khartoum struck an alliance with the LRA in response to Museveni's support for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which fought a 21-year civil war against Khartoum.

In July, a new unity government formed in Sudan, giving the SPLA a major role in Khartoum and control over the south.

Los Angeles Times Articles