KINSHASA Fugitive warlord Joseph Kony and leaders of his LRA have been chased out of Democratic Republic of Congo to the neighboring Central African Republic and no longer pose a threat in Congo, a Congolese general said on Tuesday.
The comment follows a complaint by nearby Uganda that Congo was obstructing its U.S.-backed hunt for Kony, who has been thrust into the headlines after a celebrity-backed U.S. internet campaign calling for his arrest.
Self-proclaimed mystic Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
"We have reduced the capacity of the LRA. For us it's no longer an issue of defense. It's a public order issue," General Jean Claude Kifwa, who is in charge of fighting the LRA in Congo, told journalists in the capital Kinshasa.
Known for using child soldiers and raping and mutilating its victims, Kony's Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army has been blamed by the U.N. for fresh attacks this year in Congo, causing thousands of civilians to flee.
Two LRA fighters were killed on Sunday by the Congolese army near the Congolese town of Dungu, but neither were found to have ammunition on them, Kifwa said, adding that much insecurity in the region that has been blamed on the LRA has actually been carried out by local bandits.
Kifwa dismissed tensions between Uganda and Congo as "small problems" and suggested Uganda may be deliberately dragging its feet in the hunt for Kony.
"Firstly, he's no longer in Uganda. Also the Americans are supporting the Ugandans (against the LRA) and the Ugandans want to benefit from that support," he said.
On Monday, Uganda accused Congo of refusing to allow Ugandan troops free movement in Congolese territory. Kifwa confirmed that there were no operational troops from Uganda currently in the country after they pulled out last year.
The LRA, which has operated in the region for more than 20 years, has had widespread news coverage recently after a 30-minute video by U.S.-based NGO Invisible Children went viral and drew the support of celebrities including George Clooney and Angelina Jolie.
The "Kony 2012" video, now thought to have been seen by tens of millions of people, calls for an international push to have Kony arrested by the end of this year.
But the video has drawn criticism for oversimplifying the conflict and not making clear that Kony was driven out of Uganda several years ago.
While some criticism of the campaign is valid, it may help push countries in the region and the United States to do more to end the LRA problem, according to Ida Sawyer, Congo analyst for Human Rights Watch.
"On their own, regional governments have not shown the capability or resolve to protect civilians from LRA abuses or successfully capture the LRA's top leaders," she said.
The LRA, which says it is a religious group, first emerged in northern Uganda in the late 1980s. Although it is thought to number just a few hundred, its mobility and the difficulty of the terrain it operates in have made it difficult to tackle.
The rebel group has waged a brutal insurgency for years and was ejected from northern Uganda in 2005. It has since roamed remote jungle straddling the borders of Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
Attempts to negotiate peace failed in 2008 after Kony refused to sign a deal to bring an end to the killing.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis)