- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

KAMPALA, Uganda

The top commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army roam the jungles and brush of southern Sudan, northern Uganda and eastern Congo, likely aware that they are four of the world’s most-wanted men.

The International Criminal Court unsealed arrest warrants Oct. 14 for Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo and Raska Lukwiya, charging them with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Kony is the LRA’s self-appointed messianic leader, Otti is his deputy, and Odhiambo and Lukwiya are top aides responsible for regional military operations. “They are the main glue that keeps the others together,” said Ugandan army spokesman Lt. Col. Shaban Bantariza. If the four were captured or killed, he said, the remaining rebel forces would fall apart faster.

A fifth top military figure, Dominic Ongwen, is thought to be dead. Authorities in Kampala say he was killed in late September while carrying out raids in northeast Uganda.

The indictments of the four LRA leaders are the first in the ICC’s three-year history. They accuse the LRA command of organizing atrocities against civilians, including killings, enslavement, sexual enslavement, rapes, forced conscription of children and pillaging.

Kony faces 33 counts; Otti, 32; Odhiambo, 10, and Lukwiya, four.

The LRA, in a 19-year campaign, has reportedly abducted children and teenagers and forced them to become fighters, sex slaves or baggage handlers. The United Nations estimates that more than 20,000 children in northern Uganda have been forcibly recruited by the LRA.

About 1.6 million people live in wretched refugee camps in northern Uganda, trapped between the LRA and the Kampala government, which sends the army to hunt the LRA. The latter is labeled a terrorist group by Uganda and the United States. The group claims to be fighting to establish a society ruled by the Ten Commandments.

Ugandans oppose ICC role

But the Acholi tribe, Kony’s ethnic kin and the most frequent target of his attacks, rejects ICC intervention.

“The framework by which Kony conducts his war is totally out of the orbit of the ICC and the international community’s rationale of things,” said Morris Ogenga-Latigo, an opposition lawmaker from Acholiland. “He doesn’t have the capacity to respond rationally to that indictment. He will just continue to pursue his war.”

Such an assessment led tribal and religious leaders, as well as ordinary Ugandans, to campaign in March against the ICC’s decision to pursue an investigation. They failed to persuade chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo to drop the case, but their concern has not subsided.

“The arrest warrants, we are not against them, but will the warrants help us?” said Sheik Al Haji Musa Khalil, a member of the Gulu-based Acholi Religious Peace Leaders Association. “Will it bring peace?”

Observers are pessimistic, and note the ICC’s inability to enforce the indictments because it does not have its own army or police force. Instead, the responsibility falls on Uganda’s army to track down Kony and his three commanders, who have evaded capture for nearly 20 years.

John Prendergast, an adviser to the International Crisis Group, said Uganda has “black holes” in its intelligence in southern and northern Sudan. He said the army is unable to identify and rapidly get to LRA locations, which limits the ability to conduct operations.

“The [Ugandan army] doesn’t have the capacity to catch these guys,” Mr. Prendergast said. “If they catch any of them, it’s luck.”

Col. Bantariza rejected that assessment, saying the army removed 147 high-ranking officials from the LRA’s command structure, known as “the Control Altar,” in the past three years.

That number cannot be verified, but northerners and observers agree that the LRA has suffered deep attrition in its command ranks since May 2004.

Some have been killed, but more, through choice or surrender, gave up their arms as part of an amnesty program that gives them land, money and a shield from prosecution.

The government said the amnesty option no longer applies to the four wanted men. Analysts say this can only harden the suspects’ resolve.

But in a move that alarmed Ugandans, Otti and more than 350 LRA rebels entered eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in September, even before the ICC issued its arrest warrant.

“The situation in Congo, there are many militias, and they can hide,” Sheik Khalil said. “The worst, the worst. Better in Sudan than Congo.”

He fears that the LRA faction could open a third front in an unstable region if it moves back and forth between Sudan and Congo.

The U.N. Observer Mission in Congo (MONUC) is supposed to clamp down on all who refuse to disarm, but Col. Bantariza said it has failed to move against the LRA.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni threatened to invade Congo for the third time since 1998 if MONUC did not stop Otti’s group.

Mr. Prendergast doubts that MONUC is able or willing to go after the LRA, given its failure to take on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu militia linked to the 1994 genocide.

Meanwhile, Col. Bantariza said last month that Uganda now has a greater opportunity to flush the LRA from its bases in southern Sudan. Uganda signed a joint-coordination agreement in October with the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the latter having a strong interest in crushing the LRA rebels, to enable Ugandan refugees to return home safely.

The agreement also erases the “red line,” the Juba-Torit road where Ugandan soldiers had to abandon pursuit of the guerrillas. Ugandan officials repeatedly blamed the boundary for thwarting their anti-LRA efforts.

Recent killings noted

“Now that there is no red line. We shall go as far [north] as Kony goes,” Col. Bantariza said.

Mr. Prendergast is less sanguine about the Sudan government’s tougher position toward the LRA, its former ally, and said the arrangement must be tested to see whether it is really different.

The LRA is suspected of killing three aid personnel and two mine-clearance workers, a Sudanese and an Iraqi, in late October. Two of the aid workers, both Ugandans, were killed in ambushes in northern Uganda on Oct. 25 and 26.

The mine-clearance workers with the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) were killed in an ambush in southern Sudan. Their convoy came under attack near Juba at the end of October.

Early this month, rebels fatally shot a British worker with International Aid Services in southern Sudan. He was driving to the town of Yei from Uganda when the vehicle was ambushed.

However, Mr. Prendergast said, the 19-year-old Uganda conflict is not impossible to end, considering that LRA leaders never have been offered a comprehensive peace proposal. If they were given asylum in a third country that has no extradition treaty with Uganda, he said, it would be their one chance to leave for good.

“This is the simplest war in Africa to solve,” Mr. Prendergast said.

“The LRA has no agenda other than the survival of its commanders and their livelihoods. This can be negotiated in 30 days and ended forever.”

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