Net Tightens Around Northern Uganda's Brutal Rebel Militia

A Ugandan soldier posed in August with refugee children in Pagak, a camp for people who fled northern villages fearing rebel militiamen.
A Ugandan soldier posed in August with refugee children in Pagak, a camp for people who fled northern villages fearing rebel militiamen. (Photos By Per-anders Pettersson -- Getty Images)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 8, 2005

KAMPALA, Uganda -- It was one more incident in what has been called Africa's forgotten war -- a 20-year crusade by a cult-like militia that has driven more than 1.6 million people off their farms, killed tens of thousands and become notorious for kidnapping children into slavery and mutilating civilians.

Last Tuesday, fighters from the Lord's Resistance Army militia ambushed a civilian pickup truck in northeastern Uganda, shot the driver dead and hacked a passenger to death with an ax. A pregnant woman was also shot in the stomach, Ugandan officials said, but bothshe and her unborn child survived.

Despite the continued assaults, however, there are growing indications -- including unprecedented punitive actions by the international community and political developments in neighboring countries -- that the days of this bizarre and brutal rebel force might be numbered.

This week, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued its first-ever arrest warrants for five rebel leaders, a move diplomats and human rights groups called extremely significant. The names were sealed, but diplomats, who announced the warrants on Thursday said the list presumably included the group's leader, Joseph Kony, a reclusive, self-declared prophet.

Ugandan officials on Friday urged the Sudanese government to seize Kony, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains of southern Sudan. According to the Reuters news agency, Uganda's defense minister, Amana Mbabazi, told journalists here, "I trust the Sudanese, who obviously know where Kony is, will effectively execute that warrant."

Kony's troops, however, were believed to be hiding in the forests of eastern Congo. American diplomats in New York said Thursday that the Congolese government was sending two army battalions into the area and that U.N. peacekeepers had airlifted about 1,000 troops there as well.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the court's action had sent a "very powerful message" that "would-be warlords" must be held accountable for their actions.

Richard Dicker, an attorney for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the action stamped the accused "not just as people associated with horrific acts but as indicted war criminals by an international court."

The tribunal, inaugurated in 2003, is the first permanent global court set up to try individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Another potential blow to Kony's militia has been the negotiated end to a 21-year civil war in Sudan, whose government in Khartoum had long armed and sheltered the Ugandan rebels in retaliation for Uganda's support for anti-government insurgents in southern Sudan, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. Officials in Khartoum have denied arming the group.

After the Sudan peace accord was reached in January, the Sudanese military began allowing Ugandan troops to enter southern Sudan to pursue the rebels across the border.

Nevertheless, attacks by the elusive fighters continued. In the spring, they struck trading centers and camps for displaced farmers in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, killing at least 17 civilians.

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