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The Ugandan government is on the verge of sending troops into the troubled eastern region of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, in an attempt to flush out guerrillas of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila signed an agreement in Tanzania on September 8 that will see a joint Ugandan-Congo force, supported by United Nations soldiers, attempt to remove LRA fighters from the Congo’s Garamba National Park by mid-December.
The agreement, reached after two days of negotiations in a mountain lodge at Ngurdoto near the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha, followed severe border tension between the two countries. Four people, three Ugandans and a British oil worker, were killed in raids from Congo, and Uganda’s defence minister Crispus Kiyonga threatened a unilateral Ugandan invasion of Congo to get at the LRA and other rebel groups.
The leaders of northern Uganda’s LRA rebellion, which has lasted 21 years and seen at least 100,000 people die and 1.7 million others become internal refugees, fled to the Garamba National Park, in the northeastern Congo, in late 2004 from their former bases in southern Sudan
The Garamba's 5,000 square kilometres of savannahs and forests is a UNESCO World Heritage site and form the last refuge in the wild of the critically endangered northern race of the African White Rhino. The rhinos have been heavily poached by the LRA and other marauders. At the last count, only five of the animals remained, down from an estimated 1200 in 1960. Apart from any political consequences of the planned attack on Garamba, international wildlife conservationists will be waiting with bated breath to see whether the world’s most endangered large mammal can be saved from extinction.
The International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for the LRA’s top commanders, who are all believed to be in the Garamba base. The warrants allege that LRA chief Joseph Kony, his deputy, Vincent Otti, and commanders Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen "engaged in a cycle of violence [in northern Uganda] and established a pattern of brutalisation of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements".
An arrest warrant was issued against a fifth man, Raska Lukwiya, but he was killed in fighting in northern Uganda last year.
The charge sheet further alleges that Kony and his men abducted civilians, including children, who were forcibly “recruited” as fighters, porters and sex slaves to serve the LRA.
The surprise Ngurdoto agreement came soon after Kiyonga had warned his countrymen to be prepared for renewed fighting in the Congo in the course of a briefing for parliament’s defence committee in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
Kiyonga gave notice that military targets would include four other groups in addition to the LRA.
He named the other potential targets as the People’s Redemption Army, PRA, the Allied Democratic Forces, ADF, the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, NALU, and the Interahamwe.
The defence minister’s threat came amidst reports by the United Nations Refugee Agency that some 35,000 or more Congolese have fled into Uganda from renewed warfare in the eastern Congo between local militias, renegade soldiers and the national army.
The UN World Food Programme issued a statement saying fighting in the eastern Congo’s North Kivu province was hampering efforts to send food to people already impoverished by the Congo’s endless emergencies. "This is a real and worsening crisis,'' said WFP Deputy Country Director Claude Jibidar. "The fighting is uprooting more people every day and making it ever harder for WFP to reach them with the assistance they urgently need.''
The PRA is a shadowy rebel group based in the eastern Congo. It was founded by renegade Ugandan army officers. In December 2004, the Ugandan army deployed troops along the Congo border, saying that the rebel group was preparing to attack Uganda. The leader of Uganda’s main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change and the main contender against President Museveni in the 2006 elections, was arrested in November 2005 and accused of being the "political leader of the PRA", sparking demonstrations and violent riots in his support. Besigye denied any links with PRA, and accused the government of conjuring up the rebel group.
The ADF is a Congo-based Islamic group that periodically penetrates the jungle-covered Ruwenzori Mountains of southwest Uganda. From 1996 onwards, the ADF grew into an increasingly potent rebel force - assisted by the Sudanese government - but in 1999 the Ugandan armed forces began to gain the upper hand and by 2001 they had effectively defeated the group. But by 2005 it was operating again as an effective force, according to security officials interviewed by IWPR.
“The long absence of a central government in Congo, hampered by a UN peacekeeping force without a strong mandate to disarm and reintegrate fighters, has given the ADF time to regroup there,” said Colonel James Mugira, Uganda's deputy chief of military intelligence.
According to Mugira, the ADF has been receiving funding, operational training, and weapons such as Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars and bomb-making equipment from Islamic fundamentalist groups in Muslim countries.
The NALU, formed in 1988, has been engaged in armed conflict with the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, UPDF, in western and northern regions of the country with the aim of overthrowing Museveni. In 1998, a suspected suicide bombing killed a busload of thirty people in Kampala. Even though NALU activity has been minimal over the past five years, the group is still considered to be intact. The group recently merged with the ADF and moved its main base deeper into the Congo.
The Interahamwe (a Kinyarwanda word meaning "Those who fight together") is an ethnic Hutu paramilitary organisation that enjoyed the backing of Rwanda’s Hutu-led government leading up to, during, and after the 100-day Rwandan Genocide of 1994. A majority of the Rwandan killings were perpetrated by the Interahamwe. Following the overthrow of Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government, the Interahamwe fled into the eastern Congo.
Uganda’s primary concern, however, remains the LRA, with which it has been pursuing tenuous peace since last year.
“Uganda has suggested to Congo that the Uganda’s own military, the Uganda People’s Defence Force, enters DRC and work with the Congolese army to clean up the mess caused by those negative forces,” said Dr Kiyonga at his parliamentary briefing. “If Congo and the United Nations cannot stop these negative forces from attacking us, the UPDF will do it and we shall do it within the law of this country.”
Kiyonga said the Ugandan government had on several occasions suggested solutions to the proble,. “We are talking. But if they (Congolese) are not listening, we have the capacity and the mandate to defend our people. I need to assure our people so that they do not lose hope in their country.”
Jacqueline Kyatuhaire, member of parliament for Kanungo, in the far southwest of Uganda near Lake Edward, wanted to know what steps the defence ministry was taking to beef up security in her constituency following cross-border attacks in August that that had left the four people dead.
She said her constituents were in a state of high anxiety about the possibility of further attacks.
Speaking to IWPR after the meeting, Kiyonga said the attack on Lake Albert was carried out by Congolese soldiers, while that on Butugota was by the Interahamwe.
Kiyonga observed that the discovery of oil to the north of Lake Edward, in the Lake Albert region, had heightened tensions along the undemarcated border between Uganda and Congo.
Under the Ngurdoto Accord, Museveni and Kabila agreed that oil fields that straddle their common border shall be jointly explored and exploited and costs and proceeds shared proportionately.
Bill Oketch is an IWPR reporter in Uganda.
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