- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

Uganda is on the verge of victory in an 18-year struggle with a rebel group that could end one of Africa’s longest-running and most vicious civil wars, Ugandan Defense Minister Amama Mbabazi says.

Mr. Mbabazi, who was in Washington to meet with senior U.S. officials, said in an interview Friday that the government had “turned the corner” in the battle with a shadowy rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

“I think sooner rather than later this problem should finally be over for us,” he said. “For the first time, we are seeing hard-core LRA fighters surrendering to our troops on their own.”

Human rights groups and U.S. aid officials say the scale of the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda may surpass that of the more widely reported situation in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Under rebel leader Joseph Kony, a one-time altar boy and self-proclaimed prophet, the LRA has been accused of massacres, ethnic violence and the kidnapping of more than 10,000 children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. Human rights groups have also criticized the government’s harsh tactics and pressed for a political solution.

The government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has vowed repeatedly to wipe out the LRA, but now independent observers say a new government campaign launched in 2002 is showing real results.

“The situation [in northern Uganda] is quiet,” Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Roman Catholic priest stationed in the main regional town of Gulu, told the Inter Press Service last week. “There is a climate of optimism that the war is in its final stages.”

Mr. Mbabazi said government forces had benefited from the recent acquisition of Russian attack helicopters, allowing for quick strikes against LRA strongholds.

But the defense minister said the decision earlier this year by the new International Criminal Court to make the LRA the target of its first full-fledged war crimes investigation had also focused international pressure on Sudan, which has provided LRA fighters with bases and arms for a decade.

“Now if you support the LRA, you risk being seen as an accomplice to their crimes in the world court,” the defense minister said.

Mr. Mbabazi said his government has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-led global war on terror since September 11, and was one of the first African governments to back the war in Iraq. He said Uganda knew firsthand the horrors of terrorism from its experience with ousted dictator Idi Amin.

And, he noted, al Qaeda operatives had helped train LRA fighters when the Islamist terror group was based in Sudan in the early 1990s.

“We knew about Osama bin Laden before you did,” he said.

The minister was in Washington after attending a signing ceremony Thursday in New York for a U.S.-backed cooperation pact with neighboring Rwanda and Congo. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell oversaw the signing.

The pact is designed to reduce ethnic tensions in Africa’s Great Lakes region in the wake of the fragile peace deal that ended Congo’s destabilizing five-year civil war last year.

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