U.S. committed to helping local troops find LRA’s Kony
OBO, Central African Republic – Deep in the jungle, this small, remote Central African village is farther from the coast than any point on the continent. It’s also where three international armies have zeroed in on Joseph Kony, one of the world’s most wanted warlords.
Obo was the first place in the Central African Republic that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army attacked in 2008; today, it’s one of four forward operating locations where U.S. special forces have paired up with local troops and Ugandan soldiers to seek out Kony, who is believed likely to be hiding out in the rugged terrain northwest of the town. For seven years he has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity after his forces cut a wide and bloody swath across several central African nations with rapes, abductions and killings.
Part of the LRA’s success in eluding government forces has been its ability to slip back and forth over the porous borders of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo. But since late last year, U.S. forces have been providing intelligence, looking at patterns of movement, and setting up better communications to link the countries’ forces together so they can better track the guerrilla force.
Sent by President Barack Obama at the end of 2011, the 100 U.S. soldiers are bringing in American technology and experience to assist local forces.
“We don’t necessarily go and track into the bush but what we do is we incorporate our experiences with the partner nation’s experiences to come up with the right solution to go out and hopefully solve this LRA problem,” said Gregory, a 29-year-old captain from Texas, who would only give his first name in accordance with security guidelines.
Central African Republic soldiers largely conduct security operations in and around the town, while Ugandan soldiers, who have been in the country since 2010, conduct longer-range patrols looking for Kony and his men.
Since January, they have killed seven LRA fighters in the area and captured one, while rescuing 15 people abducted by the group including five children, said their local commander, Col. Joseph Balikuddembe.
There has been no contact with the LRA since March, however, according to Ugandan army spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye, who said the LRA now is in survival mode. The LRA is thought today to number only around 150 to 300 die-hard fighters.
“They’re hiding,” he said. “They are not capable of doing.”
But with Kony still around, there are wide-ranging fears that the LRA will be able to rebuild.
“There’s periods of time when the LRA will lie low when the military pressure is too high or where there’s a threat that they don’t understand such as the American intervention,” said Matthew Brubacher, a political affairs officer with the U.N.’s mission in Congo, who was also an International Criminal Court investigator on the Kony case for five years.
“But then after a while after they figure it out, if they have the opportunity they’ll try to come back, so it’s just a matter of time they’ll try to come back. Kony always said ‘if I have only 10 men, I can always rebuild the force.’ ”
Right now, expectations are high of the Americans serving in Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic, as well as those in Dungu in Congo and Nzara in South Sudan.
An African Union mission expected to begin later this year should help expedite the cross-border pursuit of the LRA.
In the meantime, Central African Republic Deputy Defense Minister Jean Francis Bozize said the American forces could make a big difference.
“The involvement of U.S. forces with their assistance in providing information and intelligence will allow for all forces to operate from the same base-level of intelligence … (giving) better coordination with better results,” he told reporters in the capital, Bangui.
Kony’s LRA sprang up in 1986 as a rebel movement among the Acholi people in northern Uganda to fight against the Kampala government, but has for decades been leading its violent campaign without any clear political ideology.
Emmanuel Daba, 33, was one of 76 people abducted in the first LRA raid on Obo in 2008 and forced to fight for the guerrillas for two years before managing to escape.
“We were trained to kill – forced to kill – otherwise we’d be killed ourselves,” he said outside the tiny radio station where he now works broadcasting messages to try to encourage others with the LRA to defect or escape. “I still have dreams – nightmares.”
This year, the U.S. Defense Department is committing $35 million to efforts to find and fight Kony.
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