Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Sunday, 1 March 2009

DR Congo-Uganda mission under strain

Mark Doyle
BBC World Affairs Correspondent, Douruma, Dr Congo

Congolese soldier with the flag
DR Congolese soldiers have been operating with Ugandan troops

Military officers from Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have been discussing the future of a joint armed operation they began three months ago against rebels responsible for widespread atrocities inside Congo.

The Congolese government is under pressure from nationalist politicians to end the joint operation. They do not want a foreign army presence indefinitely.

Rebels of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), who have taken refuge across the Ugandan border in north-eastern Congo, massacred hundreds of Congolese over the Christmas period.

The rebels say they represent the ethnic Acholi people of northern Uganda. But for many years now they have sown terror to maintain control. Chased out of northern Uganda, they have now taken refuge in the Congolese forests.

Ugandans in charge

I travelled to north-eastern Congo with the Ugandan army.

I boarded a Ugandan military helicopter which skimmed the treetops of the forest, the officers on board scouring the land below for signs of the rebels.

A tell-tale cooking fire was spotted, the position noted, and ground troops below alerted for action.

Some 4,000 Ugandan soldiers are involved in this operation - with a similar number of Congolese alongside them.

But the Ugandans have a much better-equipped army than the Congolese and are effectively in the lead.

It is their war - they want to smash the Ugandan rebels who have taken refuge here.

But it is Congolese civilians who are suffering.

Hundreds have been massacred by the rebels in just the past few months - and thousands press-ganged into becoming porters or sex slaves. The rebels sow terror to maintain control.

Nationalist Congolese politicians in the capital Kinshasa say they do not want a foreign army here indefinitely and have put pressure on President Joseph Kabila to end the joint operation.

The Ugandans, however, want to finish the job. Their ultimate aim is to capture or kill the leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony.

They have failed to do that so far (and in fact have been fighting him for some 20 years, most of the time in northern Uganda.) But Ugandan army officers say they have disrupted his command structure and destroyed his bases in Congo.

Crisis looming

Every Congolese civilian I have spoken in the past few days in north-eastern Congo said that now the Ugandans had started this operation they should stay on to finish the job.

The area where the Ugandan rebels operate in north-eastern Congo is a humanitarian disaster zone.

More than 150,000 people terrorised by the rebels have taken refuge in towns where there is a Ugandan or Congolese military presence.

But they have no decent shelter and very little food. Aid agencies can't reach most of them because of the insecurity.

The first signs of severe malnutrition are here.

Children with distended stomachs watch wide-eyed as the Ugandan military pass by.

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