Assault on LRA – Hopes and Fears

Offensive said to be aimed at pushing rebel leader back to peace talks, but northerners fear consequences if it fails.

Assault on LRA – Hopes and Fears

Offensive said to be aimed at pushing rebel leader back to peace talks, but northerners fear consequences if it fails.

Thursday, 18 December, 2008
A dramatic strike against the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, in northern Democratic Republic of Congo is intended to force rebel leader Jospeh Kony back to the negotiating table, Ugandan officials insisted on Tuesday, December 16.

But whether the military operation, which began Sunday and involves Ugandan, DRC and South Sudan forces, will succeed remains in doubt.

“We want to flush [the] LRA out of their hideout so they can return to the negotiation table,” Ugandan foreign affairs minister Sam Kuteesa told reporters in Kampala on December 16. “It is necessary that LRA are [pressured], otherwise they will not return to the peace process.”

“Our purpose is still to have the LRA sign” a peace deal, he said, that has been two years in the making and which Kony has refused to sign on two different occasions.

Kuteesa said the military operation will be of limited duration.

“We are not going to be in Congo for long,” Kuteesa said. “Our intelligence shows that LRA fighters are less than 2,000. With heavy fighting for weeks, we should be able to capture Kony, or he surrenders.”

Should Kony escape, Kuteesa said, his force will be severely undermined, “Even if we don’t capture him, we would have caused enough damage to disable him from making more attacks.”

Kuteesa said Uganda’s next course of action will depend on the outcome of the on-going fighting.

“If [Kony] surrenders … [he] will be given amnesty and we will use all the available local remedies as provided by the Rome Statute (the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, ICC) to deal with him,” said Kuteesa. “But if he [is] captured by force, I don’t know what will happen to him.”

Details of the offensive were sketchy, Kuteesa said, but the joint forces were trying to limit casualties among non-combatants.

“We don’t have information yet regarding those injured or captured,” he said. “We first carried out aerial bombardments and the army is closing in.”

Meanwhile, reports from the regional capital Dungu were that residents generally applauded the assault on the LRA rebel bases, who had attacked the town in November, along with other population centres.

According to the United Nation’s Radio Okapi, bombers were seen and heard Sunday evening, followed by detonations thought to have been in vicinity of LRA camps, not far from the villages of Duru and Bitima, which also have been attacked by the rebels in recent months.

The radio network also reported that locals hoped the LRA would be pushed out of the area by year’s end. So far, there have been no reports of people fleeing the fighting. More than 80,000 are said to have fled LRA attacks in recent months.

Meanwhile, reaction in Uganda to the new offensive was mixed.

“I am so worried about the child combatants and their wives,” said Jimmy Akena, the Uganda parliamentary member for Lira, who is also the son of late Ugandan president Milton Obote.

“For them, this offensive is a double tragedy. Most of them are children who were abducted. They are going to be bombed by a government that failed to protect them in the first place.”

Akena was among the 15-member delegation from northern Uganda who met late last month with Kony, who has refused to sign a peace deal three times this year.

For Akena, the offensive has been troubling because when he travelled to Kony’s camp, he met one of Kony’s soldiers who had been abducted and forced to become a fighter.

“On the last journey to meet Kony, I happened to meet a 23-year-old boy,” Akena said. Just like many of Kony’s fighters, the boy was abducted at 15 and told Akena he was from Lira. “He begged me to find his parents and tell them he was still alive.”

Akena said he found the soldier’s parents and passed on the message. The parents were very happy and hoped if the war ended peacefully they could see their son.

“What am I going to tell them?” asked Akena.

According to a joint statement from officials with the Uganda, South Sudan and Congolese military, Kony’s bases in the Garamba national park in northeastern DRC were attacked Sunday morning.

“The three armed forces successfully attacked the main body of bandits and destroyed the main camp of Kony code-named Camp Swahili, setting it on fire,” the statement said. “Military operations against the terrorists are continuing.”

Kony and his commanders have been wanted by the ICC since 2005 for a variety of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in 2003 and 2004 when fighting intensified in northern Uganda.

ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo praised the offensive.

"For more than three years, the Office of the Prosecutor has been emphasising the importance of bringing the three commanders – Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen – who bear the greatest responsibility for LRA crimes to justice. Their arrest is long overdue,” according to a statement from the prosecutor’s office.

“Since moving out of Uganda, savage LRA attacks have continued against civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and the Central African Republic. These escalated dramatically in the DRC on 17 September 2008, when the LRA launched multiple attacks killing civilians and abducting many children.

“The continued attacks demonstrate the importance of ending the LRA threat and bringing the three commanders who bear the greatest responsibility for LRA crimes to justice. The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic and northern Uganda have suffered long enough."

Groups such as Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, cautioned that care should be taken to limit non-combatant casualties.

“There is a history of grave abuses against civilians by every belligerent force operating in eastern Congo, including foreign armies,” said Elise Keppler, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “All commanders involved in this operation should ensure that their troops rigorously obey the laws of war.”

Meanwhile, people in northern Uganda feared that if Kony was not killed or captured, he could return to northern Uganda and resume his war there.

“They have to make sure he’s not forced back into the country,” said Ben Wacha, a Ugandan parliamentary member. “Otherwise people of northern Uganda would be taken back to scenes of oppression which they have seen for the last 22 years.”

Similarly, the opposition leader in Uganda’s parliament, Morris Ogenga Latigo, warned that the offensive could provoke Kony into launching attacks, if he’s not captured or killed.

“This operation is like attacking a dangerous tiger,” Latigo said. “If you don’t finish it off, it will retaliate and the results will quite regrettable.”

In Gulu, Ray Apire, a former LRA combatant, said he was sceptical about reports because they offered so few details of the offensive.

Apire said that unless the assault on the rebels was with an overwhelming force, it might fail. Apire predicted the LRA would use its tactic of splitting and going different directions, and leave only a few fighters for the advancing forces to “play around” with.

Apire praised the timing of the attack because the LRA had relaxed in Garamba Park.

"The relative peace allowed them to recruit, attack and loot,” he said. “The attack will therefore destabilise them, and the fearful ones will escape, the weak ones will be captured or rescued."

Christopher Omara, a student of Gulu University, told IWPR that if the joint force was not fully prepared and well coordinated, then civilians could be in jeopardy.

"The first attack should have seen that LRA leadership is killed or arrested,” he said. “If not, then let’s prepare for terror in the region. No one wants to hear that 'the LRA just escaped narrowly' as always.”

Alfred Anywar, a cycle taxi driver in Gulu, warned that if the LRA are not finished off, they will return with a vengeance.

"The LRA will mix with the IDPs (internally displaced people) who have gone back home and within a short period of time cause havoc,” Anywar said.

Rosebell Kagumire, Patrick Okino and Caroline Ayugi are IWPR-trained reporters. Peter Eichstaedt is Africa Editor for IWPR. Marie Delbot contributed to this report.
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