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Rebel terror spreads to CAR

7 October 09 13:18 GMT

For years a swath of the African continent has been a killing ground for the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). As the BBC's Chris Simpson reports, villagers in southern parts of the Central African Republic are the latest to flee in fear from the rebels.

Like the rest of his village, Elie Leande, the chief of Kourokou I, is now living in a makeshift camp near Obo, the regional capital of Haut-Mbomou in southern CAR.

He says the LRA attacked his village in May, killing 10 civilians.

"I had not really heard of these people before, but now they are always with us," he says.

"I do not know what they want, because they attack you before you can talk to them."

As with other locals, Mr Leande refers to the LRA as the Tongo Tongo.

'No return'

The first reports of LRA activity in Haut-Mbomou filtered through in February 2008.

The LRA originated in Uganda two decades ago, with leader Joseph Kony claiming he wanted to overthrow the Kampala government and install a Bible-based theocracy.

Since then, the rebels have fought battles across several countries.

In Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo - and now the CAR - the LRA insurgency has been characterised by small groups of combatants attacking villages, burning property, taking hostages, raiding crops and livestock.

After a period of relative calm, LRA attacks resumed in May this year.

Elie Leande lists the villages hit and then abandoned: "Diniri, Gassimbla, Koubou, Gougbere, Ngouli, Kouroukou... our government was very negligent."

Local human rights organisations have complained bitterly of a lack of proper protection, calling on the government to step up the deployment of troops to the area.

With the CAR's approval, Uganda has deployed troops to take part in a major operation against the LRA.

Uganda has since announced the killing of two senior LRA officers - Colonel Santos Ali and Kalalang - and the capture of two others, Thomas Kwoyelo and Major Okot Atiak, who is often described as Mr Kony's main lieutenant.

But the reported victories mean little to Mr Leande and his neighbours.

"Every day you hear of shots being fired and that means the Tongo Tongo are still in the area," he says.

"We hold meetings to decide what we should do. No-one wants to be here in these pitiful conditions, but we cannot go back to our village for now."

Hazardous life

Initially housed in schools and churches, most of the 3,000 displaced villagers now occupy makeshift huts and shelters, using branches of trees, plastic sheeting and any available greenery to reinforce their homes.

The villages have been reconstituted on clearly demarcated sites accessible from a long, winding path.

Those who fled Kouroukou I in May live cheek-by-jowl with villagers from Kouroukou II, abandoned in September.

Hundreds of Congolese refugees have also settled in Obo, fleeing the same enemy.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works closely with the displaced communities and is trying to secure access to clean drinking-water and build toilets.

The search for food and water can be hazardous, with ever-changing reports on which areas around Obo are safe and which are off-limits, depending on the LRA's presence and the activities of Ugandan troops.

Farmland wrecked

Elie Bitimoyo is village chief in Ligoua, 20km (12 miles) south-east of Obo. He left in August after a series of LRA attacks over the previous three months.

"We were targeted because the village is rich and they wanted our crops and animals", he says.

Ugandan troops have been patrolling Ligoua and, according to Mr Bitimoyo, they showed villagers the head of a slain LRA combatant as proof that they were in control of the situation.

"The UPDF [Ugandan army] are doing their work", Mr Bitimoyo says.

"But to sort this problem out you need a stronger force. Why can the French or the Americans not intervene here?"

Although a provincial capital, Obo is little more than a collection of villages. The population lives mainly off agriculture and hunting.

There are concerns that the best farmland has been wrecked by the LRA. Ethnic Peul nomads, who have been coming through the region for decades, have also lost livestock. The main market is poorly stocked.

Presidential visit

Ironically, Haut-Mbomou has been spared the insurgencies and military operations seen in northern parts of the CAR.

Locals remember being unwilling hosts to southern Sudanese rebels in the past and draw parallels with their current predicament.

But there is anger too at the central government, accused of neglecting its responsibilities.

President Francois Bozize is due to visit Obo in October, a mission seen as a gesture of solidarity, breaking the region's isolation.

"The president should not come here at this moment," one villager from Kourouko asserts.

"Look at how much food the Tongo Tongo have stolen. This is no time for a celebration with the president. What will we feed him?"

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