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Who can stop the LRA?

A security assessment meter in Dungu, north-east Congo
High risk: Dungu in north-east Congo is one of Africa's most dangerous places

By Mike Thomson
Today programme

A row is escalating between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda over how to deal with Africa's longest-surviving and most feared militia group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

The Congolese military claims that Uganda has been exaggerating the threat posed by the LRA in DR Congo in an effort to justify the presence of its forces there and to win special funding from the United States.

Boy living in fear of the LRA

A senior officer in north-east DR Congo has even gone as far as claiming that hunting the LRA has become such a "business" for the Ugandans that they do not actually want to defeat them, claims that are vigorously denied by the brigadier general in charge of Uganda's LRA operations.

The Lord's Resistance Army was formed in northern Uganda by its messianic leader, Joseph Kony, in 1987. He claimed the north of Uganda was being marginalised and exploited by President Yoweri Museveni's national government in the south.

For nearly two decades Kony's forces fought to overthrow Mr Museveni and establish a government based on the Ten Commandments. During that period the LRA killed 10,000 Ugandans and abducted an estimated 60,000 children. Many villagers were maimed and mutilated, often after being accused of helping government forces.

Finally, five years ago, the LRA was driven out of Uganda into neighbouring Southern Sudan, DR Congo and the Central African Republic.

Over Christmas 2008 its fighters beat to death as many as 800 people in north-eastern DR Congo. Although the LRA may now be less than 200 strong, it continues to spread fear throughout large isolated swathes of central and east Africa.

Brigadier General Charles Otema
Brig Gen Charles Otema says he is not compromised by his tribal links

The United Nations estimates that across the region more than 400,000 people have now fled their homes, 300,000 of those in DR Congo alone.

Under a special agreement Ugandan armed forces were given permission to chase Kony's LRA into DR Congo. Some in the Congolese military now believe that President Museveni's army has outstayed its welcome.

This view seems to stem from past accusations that Ugandan soldiers have been involved in plundering some of the DR Congo's valuable natural resources and their presence has more to do with self-interest than fighting the LRA.

Lieutenant Colonel Nasibu Babu Nadoo, acting commander of Congolese forces in Dungu, north-east DR Congo, told me: "The LRA issue has long been used by other countries to attack Congo. Today I think it's become a business for Ugandan officers to enrich themselves by telling the international community that the LRA is a big problem here."

The colonel insists that his forces, which have been working in collaboration with Ugandan and UN troops, have now driven all but a few LRA rebels out of DR Congo, a claim that he insists comes from the Ugandan army's own estimates.

"Over the last two years we have successfully neutralised Kony," he explained. "Today the Ugandan army says there are only 18 LRA fighters left here. That's their figures, not ours. We've conducted search missions and never found a single LRA."

The only thing I ask for is peace. Nothing else.
Kutule Zagino

And Colonel Babu Nadoo does not leave it there. He further alleges that the man in charge of the Ugandan forces' operation against the LRA, Brigadier General Charles Otema, does not want to catch Joseph Kony.

One reason for this, he alleges, is that the hunt for the LRA is netting the general's forces large amounts of American money. He also claims that Gen Otema is compromised by his tribal links with Kony.

"Brigadier General Otema is from the same tribe as Kony: They are Acholi. So, I ask myself, when are they going to arrest or kill Kony?" he told me.

A long and deep laugh fills the room as Brigadier General Otema takes in this latest accusation. The words "really amazing" and "absurd" are followed by an angry denial.

"From the time I started overseeing these operations [against the LRA] I have killed over 400 of them. If it was just because of this being my tribe do you think all these number would have been killed? In Uganda we have outgrown these cheap politics."

The brigadier general also utterly rejects the allegation that his forces have been making a "business" out of the LRA hunt in DR Congo by exaggerating the scale of the problem in order both to win US funding and exploit DR Congo's minerals.

"It's absurd, really absurd," he told me. "You've been in Dungu yourself. You must have witnessed cases where people are living in fear and being abducted."

And he added: "Our only interest is to get rid of the LRA, pack and come home."

A Congolese soldier is treated in Dunga's hospital
Shot by the LRA: This Congolese soldier is treated in Dungu's hospital

But it seems Uganda is not waiting for Joseph Kony's LRA to be defeated before starting to pack its bags.

The country's forces in DR Congo have already been scaled down and more are expected to leave soon to reinforce Uganda's peacekeeping forces in Somalia.

The UN has a crack force of jungle-trained Guatemalan commandos in DR Congo, as part of its peacekeeping mission, Monusco. But they, like other UN troops in DR Congo, are only there to protect civilians and have no mandate to go after the LRA.

Meanwhile, as military leaders continue to argue, the LRA carries on killing, maiming and abducting across three countries.

When I travelled to the town of Gilima in north-east DR Congo, I was told that six local people had been abducted by the LRA over the previous fortnight.

One of those kidnapped, 80-year-old Kutule Zagino, who was later freed, said people there are so frightened that they dare not go to their fields and find it almost impossible to sleep at night. He has lost faith in the ability of regional forces to protect the population and is calling on the international community to help.

"I'm crying out to the whole world to help bring us peace," he said. "So that we can live normally again like we used to. The only thing I ask for is peace. Nothing else."

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