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Former members of pro-government militias are being blamed for a series of brutal murders in northern Ugnada, which have spread fear and terror among the region’s long-suffering residents.
Some serving members of the armed forces are also believed to be involved in the killings, which the authorities appear to be struggling to stem.
Wielding guns, machetes and bows and arrows, the assailants seem to be trying to pass themselves off as members of the Lords Resistance Army, LRA, currently holed up in the Garamba Park of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
More than 20 people have died and four others were severely wounded in the recent attacks that have swept the districts of Kitgum, Lira, Gulu, Oyam and Pader, and the Lango and Acholi tribal areas. The killers, who move around in groups of three of four, have also struck in the Teso tribal regions of eastern Uganda.
The murders have revived nightmarish memories of the atrocities committed by fighters of Joseph Kony’s army. The victims have included wealthy farmers and beneficiaries of the United Nations World Food Programme.
In Lira and Oyam, the attackers have killed eleven people in recent weeks, wounding others and looting property worth thousands of dollars.
Law enforcement officials have attempted to thwart the attacks with little success, angering local residents.
“Police should hand over the murderers so that we can hang them, or else all the district police commanders should resign,” said an angry man in Lira who spoke to the condition of anonymity.
“If [commanders] refuse to do [something], then we shall leave our homes and take matters into our own hands.”
Some arrests have been made. Seven people were detained last week by the police in Lira. Three of the suspects were members of the Uganda military, confirmed Captain Deo Akiiki, the army spokesman based in the north.
Akiiki said the government planned to deal harshly with armed forces suspected of crimes, “We shall not allow hooligans to continue disrupting peace in north. We shall deal with them according to the existing law of the soil.
“We don’t want civilians to lose trust in us. [The Ugandan military] is mandated to provide security, not to cause havoc.”
Angry villagers attending a recent court hearing in Lira in which the seven suspects appeared demanded to lynch the alleged killers.
In Oyam, police say they have been unable to make any arrests because villagers have refused to identify the assailants, said District Police Commander Arai Okot.
“The communities are aware of these people, but they fear [naming them],” he said with dismay, adding that locals need to cooperate with law enforcement officers if they wish to be safe.
Okot said heavy security has been deployed in several villages to thwart further attacks.
Meanwhile in Gulu, several suspected killers have been arrested, some posing as LRA mediators and commanders, according to the New Vision government-owned newspaper.
The state minister for disaster preparedness, Musa Ecweru said most of the killings are the work of former pro-government paramilitaries.
He noted that former soldiers of the recently demobilised Amuka, or “Rhino” militia of northern Uganda, and the Arrow Boys militia of eastern Uganda, are using their weapons to commit crimes.
The minister says more than 2,000 arms recovered from the LRA have not been turned over to the government and are being used in Teso and northern regions by the ex-militiamen.
After their demobilisation, some of the Amuka and Arrow Boys were recruited into the Ugandan army or given additional training and deployed in the police force.
Many others were given reintegration packages to help them return to civilian life, but Ecweru said they have not adapted to their new circumstances.
“They are now using illegal arms in their possession to kill and loot others,” he said.
Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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