WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Friday he was sending about 100 U.S. troops to central Africa to help and advise government forces battling Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebels accused of murder, rape and kidnapping children.
Obama — who once denounced the LRA as an “affront to human dignity” — made clear the troops would serve as trainers and advisers in efforts to hunt down rebel leader Joseph Kony and would not engage in combat except in self-defense.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said the first U.S. forces arrived in Uganda on Wednesday and would be deployed to South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo “subject to the approval of each respective host nation.”
Obama’s decision commits U.S. forces to help confront a rebel group that has drawn international condemnation for decades of chilling violence, including hacking body parts off victims and the abduction of young boys to fight and young girls for use as sex slaves.
While the U.S. military has maintained a large base in Djibouti since 2003, the latest mission marks an expanded role in conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa by putting U.S. troops in the field to support local forces in direct combat with insurgents.
“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 senior administration official said the mission was “time-limited” to last only months. The bulk of roughly 100 troops being dispatched were special forces, a U.S. defense official said.
The limited terms of engagement appeared aimed at reassuring war-weary Americans that Obama 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.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said U.S. troops would train local forces in activities such as tracking, intelligence assessment and conducting patrols “to render the LRA ineffective.” The trainers “will be armed for self-defense,” Little said.
Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential election, said promoting African stability by reducing the LRA threat was a “worthy goal” but Obama should have consulted Congress before putting forces “into harm’s way.”
The State Department said the troops were dispatched “with the consent” of Uganda’s government, headed by President Yoweri Museveni. His critics have accused him of using the fight against rebels as an excuse to stifle political opposition.
“We didn’t solicit for this support but now that it has come we welcome it,” Felix Kulaigye, spokesman for the Ugandan army, told Reuters by telephone. “Kony is a regional security menace and the earlier we end it, the better.”
Obama 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 LRA, which says it is a religious group, 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.”
LRA commanders have been operating in the wild and largely lawless border regions of the DRC, 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 have made it 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 U.N. efforts to stabilize the region.
The U.S. military has operated a joint task force from Camp Lemonnier near the international airport in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa since 2003, its only base on the African continent. Camp Lemonnier supports about 2,500 U.S. military personnel, allied forces and defense contractors.
The base, overseen by the recently created U.S. Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is engaged in “stability operations” against Islamist militants and reportedly is being used as a base for flights of unmanned surveillance and strike aircraft over Somalia and Yemen.
The United States has military personnel deployed in 34 sub-Saharan African countries, mostly small contingents of less than 40 personnel attached to the U.S. embassies.
Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington and Elias Biryabarema in Kampala; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Simao