KAMPALA (Reuters) - Responding to an Internet campaign backed by celebrities who want Uganda to capture fugitive warlord Joseph Kony and save child soldiers, the government complained on Monday it needed more help from its African neighbors.
In particular, a Ugandan spokesman said, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was obstructing its U.S.-backed hunt for Kony and the remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army, seven years after the feared rebel group was largely driven out of Uganda.
While saying most LRA fighters were in the Central African Republic (CAR) - a fact underlying Uganda’s frustration with the campaign which went viral last week - Fred Opolot added that some were in the DRC: “Being unable to have unimpeded access to Congolese territory, where these remnants are, is obviously a major hindrance to the hunt for Kony,” he told Reuters.
Opolot, director of the Ugandan government media centre, said that efforts were going to give the Ugandan army, the People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), the same freedom to operate in the DRC as it had in the CAR and other neighboring countries.
“There are some bilateral talks going on to secure access to Congo and we wish they succeed so that UPDF can operate there whenever LRA threats arise,” he said.
A video posted on YouTube by a film-maker in San Diego has been viewed by tens of millions of people, promoted on Twitter with tags that include #Kony2012 and endorsed by the likes of Justin Bieber, George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey.
Campaigners want Uganda - and the U.S. government, which provides it with military support - to arrest Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
His use of children as fighters and sex slaves, as well as a fondness for hacking off limbs, kept northern Uganda in terror for two decades. But violence has subsided since 2005 and Kony is believed now to command only hundreds of followers, scattered in remote jungle hideouts across the DRC, CAR and South Sudan.
Uganda’s army, which has 100 U.S. troops attached to it as advisers and trainers, has a base in the Central African Republic and can also operate in South Sudan, Opolot said.
President Barack Obama, whom the anti-Kony campaigners hope to influence as he seeks re-election in November, ordered the U.S. deployment to the region last year to help forces in Uganda, the CAR, DRC and South Sudan combat Kony’s fighters.
Ugandan officials have called the 30-minute video by the California-based group Invisible Children helpful in raising global awareness of Kony and the atrocities of the LRA. But they complain it misrepresents the current situation and note that Kony is widely assumed to be no longer in their country.
The Internet campaign has also highlighted the instability and lawlessness that plagues much of central Africa. Many Ugandans mistrust their own government’s forces, which have been accused in a leaked U.N. report of committing war crimes in the DRC in the late 1990s that were little less grave than Kony’s.
The control exercised by the DRC government in Kinshasa over its northeastern expanses bordered by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the CAR has also been slight, making the region a battleground for a variety of forces over the years.
Last week the U.N. refugee agency said the LRA had resumed attacks on civilians in the DRC’s Orientale Province. It recorded one person killed, 17 abducted and 3,000 displaced.
Felix Kulayigye, a spokesman for Uganda’s defense ministry, said that it was up to the forces of newly re-elected DRC president Joseph Kabila to deal with LRA attacks there:
“We left Congo toward elections,” he said of parliamentary and presidential votes held in November. “Ask the Congolese what they’re doing about these LRA attacks,” he told Reuters.
“It’s their duty to deal with those attacks.”
Editing by James Macharia and Alastair Macdonald