KAMPALA Ugandan ground forces closed in on Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) bases in northeastern Congo after bombarding the rebels' camps, the army said on Monday, in a new push to end one of Africa's longest-running conflicts.
The offensive agreed by Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Sudan began on Sunday with an aerial attack against the camps in the remote Garamba National Park in eastern Congo.
Analysts say regional governments were spurred to act after losing patience with LRA leader Joseph Kony who has repeatedly failed to sign a final peace deal to end fighting that has killed thousands of people.
"We can confirm that most of (Kony's) camps have been set on fire," said Ugandan army spokesman Major Paddy Ankunda. "It was an air-led operation, then the ground forces were inserted."
"We had reliable intelligence that they were preparing to attack Uganda ... and also we had the ICC warrants," he said, referring to indictments by the International Criminal Court for Kony and two of his deputies for war crimes.
The self-proclaimed mystic Kony has repeatedly demanded the ICC arrest warrants be dropped before the guerrillas would leave their camps in Congo.
Kony's fighters have waged a two-decade war against Uganda's government, mutilating victims, displacing nearly two million and destabilizing a vast swathe of central Africa.
After initial euphoria when a peace process started in mid-2006, LRA rebels have since run amok in the porous borders of Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic, opening a new front in a region racked by insecurity.
Ankunda would not comment on any Ugandan casualties, nor how many troops were involved in the operation.
Operating from camps in Garamba, the LRA has attacked several Congolese villages and towns in recent months. The rebels have killed dozens of civilians and abducted several hundred, including many children.
Kinshasa, Kampala and Juba agreed earlier this year to launch joint military operations against the insurgents.
South Sudan's army spokesman, Peter Parnyang, said its soldiers would not cross into Congo to chase the LRA.
"Of course we are part (of the operation), but our work is to protect our people," he said. "There will be no attacks unless they come."
Experts say a swift military victory against the LRA would be fraught with difficulties.
"The history of this conflict has shown that it is very resistant to military defeat," said analyst Levi Ochieng.
"But the political dynamics have changed ... the LRA cannot have a safe haven in southern Sudan and that's why they moved to Congo," he said. "It's a kind of a wild west."
Kony's fighters were harried by Uganda's army into southern Sudan, where they were used as a proxy force to fight Sudanese rebels battling Khartoum's central government.
In 2005, when the Sudanese civil war ended, Kony quit his southern hideouts and moved to Congo.
The 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the Congo (MONUC) said no decision had been taken on what role U.N. peacekeepers would play in the new offensive against Kony.
Congo's information minister, Lambert Mende, said the offensive would continue until all Kony's bases were destroyed.
"It has already been successful ... The bulk of Kony's infrastructure in the Garamba was destroyed (on Sunday)."
(Additional reporting by Skye Wheeler in Juba and Joe Bavier in Kinshasa; Editing by David Clarke and Katie Nguyen)