WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Friday he was sending about 100 U.S. military advisers to Uganda to support central African allies pursuing Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and other rebel commanders.
Obama’s decision commits U.S. forces to help battle a Ugandan rebel group he once condemned as an “affront to human dignity” for chilling violence that has included hacking body parts off victims, abduction of young boys to fight and young girls to be used as sex slaves.
“I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield,” Obama said a letter to Congress.
But he asserted that U.S. forces “will only be providing information, advice and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense.”
The terms of engagement may be aimed at reassuring war-weary Americans he has no plan to entangle U.S. forces directly in another conflict when they are already involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and are playing a support role in a NATO-led air campaign in Libya.
The LRA, which says it is a religious group, first emerged in northern Uganda in the 1990s and is believed to have killed, kidnapped and mutilated tens of thousands of people.
Kony has been indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“The LRA continues to commit atrocities across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan that have a disproportionate impact on regional security,” Obama said.
He said U.S. advisers were needed because “regional military efforts have thus far been unsuccessful in removing LRA leader Joseph Kony or his top commanders from the battlefield.”
Obama said the initial team of U.S. advisers arrived in Uganda on Wednesday and that a total of around 100 personnel would be deployed for the mission.
“Subject to the approval of each respective host nation, elements of these U.S. forces will deploy into Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he said.
LRA commanders have been operating in the wild and largely lawless border regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Sudan in recent years.
Although now thought to number just a few hundred fighters, the LRA’s mobility and the difficulties of the terrain has made them difficult to tackle. Attempts to negotiate peace failed in 2008 after Kony refused to sign a deal to end the killing.
Uganda and Congolese officials said earlier this year they thought Kony had returned to eastern DRC, complicating United Nations efforts to stabilize the region.