The Central African Republic says it is negotiating the surrender of warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is the subject of a U.S.-aided manhunt, but the Obama administration said Thursday it has “little reason to believe” the Ugandan rebel is part of the talks.
“The United States is aware that Central African Republic authorities have been in contact for several months with a small Lord’s Resistance Army group in CAR that has expressed interest in surrendering,” a State Department official said on the condition of anonymity. “At this time, we have little reason to believe that Joseph Kony is part of this group.”
Central African Republic officials, including interim President Michel Djotodia, say they are in talks with Kony, who they believe is in the town of Nzako.
“The president said he had spoken by telephone with Joseph Kony who wants to lay down his arms,” government spokesman Gaston Mackouzangba told The Associated Press. “The negotiations are ongoing.”
Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The Obama administration has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Kony and two of his top lieutenants, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen.
In April, U.S. and Ugandan officials put military operations to nab Kony on hold after Seleka rebels overran the country, overthrew President Francois Bozize and took over the capital, Bangui.
African Union-led forces, backed by about 100 U.S. military advisers, renewed their manhunt for Kony in the Central African Republic in August.
Kony previously has used lulls in fighting and negotiations to relocate his rebels and replenish their ranks.
“Many times in the past, Joseph Kony and his senior commanders have used — and we believe will continue to use — any and every pre-text to rest, regroup and rearm, ultimately returning to kidnapping, killing, displacing and otherwise abusing civilian populations,” the State Department official said.
Michael Poffenberger, executive director of the anti-LRA advocacy group The Resolve, said an LRA group represented by a mid-level commander has been engaged in dialogue with local authorities in Nzako since August.
“There has been no concrete evidence that [Kony] is in any way associated [with the talks],” Mr. Poffenberger said. “Furthermore, there is concern that this group is only using this as an opportunity to gain food and supplies for the LRA, which they have now been given by the CAR authorities.”
The LRA operates in jungles straddling the borders of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
The State Department official said it is clear that the Lord’s Resistance Army is under significant pressure from the African Union’s Regional Task Force.
“The AU Regional Task Force must maintain the current momentum and continue its operations against all LRA groups,” the official said.
Nearly 100 men, women and children have left the LRA since 2012, and the U.S. military advisers encourage and facilitate such defections.
“We will continue to welcome those who are serious about putting down their arms and surrendering,” the State Department official said.
On Wednesday, the AU special envoy on the LRA, Francisco Madeira, told the U.N. Security Council that he is aware of reports that Kony is suffering from a “serious, uncharacterized illness.”
The State Department official said that U.S. officials have seen “varying reports about Kony’s health.”
The LRA originated in northern Uganda and has spread its operations across central Africa. The group is notorious for killing civilians, using children as soldiers and sex slaves, and trafficking ivory. It seeks to overthrow the Ugandan government and rule the country under its interpretation of the Ten Commandments.