KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Sudan launched a joint military offensive on Sunday against Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in a remote northeast corner of Congo, their armies said.
The three governments agreed in principle in June to start joint operations against the LRA guerrillas -- notorious for mutilating civilians and kidnapping children -- if their leader Joseph Kony did not sign a final peace deal to end two decades of conflict. He repeatedly has failed to sign prepared deals.
"The armed forces of Uganda (UPDF), DRC (FARDC) and Southern Sudan (SPLA) in a joint intelligence-led military operation, this morning the 14th of December 2008 launched an attack on LRA terrorists of Joseph Kony in the Garamba forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo," the three nations' military intelligence chiefs said in a joint statement.
"The three armed forces successfully attacked the main body and destroyed the main camp of Kony codenamed camp Swahili, setting it on fire," they added, saying further details would be released as the offensive progressed.
Officials from southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo were not immediately available for comment.
The 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC), which although the largest in the world is struggling to halt rebel and militia violence in eastern North Kivu province, said no decision had been taken on what role U.N. peacekeepers would play in the anti-LRA offensive in Orientale province.
"MONUC is in the process of consolidating information indicating the launching of a joint operation between the Congolese and Ugandan armies from Congolese soil," MONUC military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich said. He gave no more details.
The LRA, led by the self-proclaimed mystic Kony, has waged one of Africa's longest guerrilla wars against the Ugandan government. Harried by the Ugandan army, the rebels have sought shelter in Congo's northern forests and earlier this year raided Central African Republic, looting homes and abducting civilians.
In recent months, the LRA, operating from camps in the thickly forested Garamba National Park, near Congo's porous northern border with Sudan, has attacked several northeastern villages and towns. Rebels have killed dozens of civilians and abducted several hundred, including many children.
These LRA raids have opened up a new front of violence in a corner of the vast, former Belgian colony that has mineral wealth but is racked by conflicts and ethnic enmities.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last week renewed a call for Kony to sign the latest peace deal proposed. He spoke after Kony once again snubbed mediators by failing to show up and sign the agreement, thrashed out in long negotiations in south Sudan.
Kony has demanded that International Criminal Court indictments for him and his top deputies be withdrawn before they leave their forest hideouts in northeastern Congo.
"It is vital that LRA leaders, including Joseph Kony, wanted by the ICC for heinous abuses against civilians are apprehended and surrendered to face trial for their alleged crimes," Elise Keppler, senior counsel for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program, said in an email to Reuters.
"However, any effort to arrest these individuals should minimize the risk to civilians and avoid excessive use of force," she added.
Experts say a swift military victory against the LRA guerrillas could be difficult as they have been in the area for some time and are used to launching hit-and-run attacks against larger and better equipped forces.
In 2006, eight Guatemalan special forces U.N. troops were killed during a botched operation to capture or kill the LRA's then deputy commander Vincent Otti in the Garamba Park.
In the separate conflict in North Kivu, Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda have made rapid advances in recent weeks, routing the U.N.-backed Congo army, seizing territory and displacing around a quarter of a million people.
Thousands of people have been killed and 2 million displaced during the 22 years of fighting between Kony's rebels and the Ugandan government.
The conflict has destabilized parts of oil-producing south Sudan and mineral-exporting east Democratic Republic of Congo.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)
Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa, Writing by Wangui Kanina and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Elizabeth Piper