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A multinational offensive aimed at wiping out Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels – and planned and equipped with U.S. support during the dying days of the Bush administration - has scattered fighters who have unleashed a wave of massacres on Congolese villages.
LRA fighters have killed nearly 900 people in reprisal attacks in northeast Congo since Ugandan troops, together with Sudanese and Congolese soldiers, launched a military operation in December against fugitive rebel leader Joseph Kony, whose two-decade insurgency has killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted 2 million. (See Alertnet briefing for more)
Reuters reported on the U.S. involvement in December. The New York Times said recently that the Pentagon’s new Africa Command (Africom) had contributed intelligence, advice and $1 million in fuel. The Washington Post argues the operation has been so unsuccessful it amounts to little more than “throwing a rock at a hive of bees”.
Foreign Policy magazine said that the LRA, who failed to sign a planned peace deal in April, would be hard to stamp out and that the operation was putting the Pentagon’s reputation at risk.
There are sceptical voices in the blogosphere too.
“One of the first publicly acknowledged Africom operations has turned into a general debacle, resulting in the death of nearly a thousand civilians and sending untold numbers of children into sex slavery and military servitude,” Dave Donelson says on his Heart of Diamonds blog.
Writing in Uganda’s Monitor, Grace Matsiko said the offensive was proving a real test for officers of Uganda’s army (UPDF).
“Uganda should brace itself for a protracted war, should Kony and his top lieutenants continue to evade the UPDF dragnet,” the journalist wrote.
Meanwhile, aid agency MSF has accused the United Nations force in Congo, the world’s biggest, of failing to protect civilians from Ugandan rebel attacks – accusations the world body has rejected as totally unfounded. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has also accused U.N. peacekeepers of inactivity and of living alongside the LRA for three years and doing nothing about the guerrillas.
While expressing his horror at the what he called ‘catastrophic’ consequences for civilians from the offensive, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes has said the joint force still needs to see the operation through.
Should the offensive continue or is it time to halt it? If so, what should be done about the rebels? How big an impact should the conduct of this operation have for the U.S. Africa Command’s future role?
Driving from Gulu town in northern Uganda to Kitgum, you’re struck by how normal it all seems now. People are walking up and down the main dirt road that connects the two towns, bicycles dodge potholes and passing cars with precision, and the occasional bus plows through, leaving billows of dust in tow. But before Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) signed a ceasefire in August 2006, the high bush grass and sparsely populated villages made good cover for ambushes, and easy access for rebels abducting new recruits. This road, now full of life, used to be almost empty, people had moved furtively and quickly from one place to another, always watchful, fearful of running into rebels, in a war that has claimed thousands of lives.
But more than twenty years since LRA leader Joseph Kony began his rebellion, northern Uganda is seeing the first effects of peace; both good and bad. Agriculture output is rising as people return to the fields — the north could become Uganda’s bread basket. At the height of the war, some 2 million people were forced from their homes. Now, the majority have returned to their villages or to transition areas. But, it hasn’t all been easy. In fact, many new problems are emerging. An outbreak of highly-infectious Hepatitis E has killed more than 100 people so far. Many northerners are returning to villages, which have rotted during the long course of the war. Aid groups say conditions were often better in camps than in home villages. Many residents are returning to areas with little access to clean water or good sanitation. And this breeds more disease and more suffering.