NAIROBI, Kenya -- In the remote northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a notorious group of rebels has laid claim to the title of most crazed and murderous in Africa, killing at least 321 civilians and kidnapping hundreds more during a methodical rolling four-day attack on a string of villages.
Regional military officials had largely written off the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), convinced that the rebel group, which first emerged in Uganda in 1987, had been scattered into small ineffective units by a series of harassing assaults in late 2008 and early 2009. Over three months Ugandan and Congolese armies with U.S. support joined forces to hunt down the LRA and its elusive leader Joseph Kony.
It was said that the LRA's subsequent disarray made them a less lethal fighting force, no longer a threat to the stability of this fragile region, a borderless forested badlands where Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda and Southern Sudan blend into one another.
But the revelation this week by investigators from the New York-based advocacy organization Human Rights Watch of the scale and brutality of the December 2009 attack made it clear the LRA remain a force to be reckoned with, at least by helpless civilians.
It was the bloodiest attack in a while and went unreported for months because of the sheer remoteness of the territory. Survivors in the Makombo area of Haut Uele district told of being tied up in human chains and marched through the forest, their fellow captives randomly picked to have their heads smashed open with axes or to be hacked to death with machetes.
One witness who had fled to the nearby town of Niangara, where there is a small detachment of United Nations peacekeepers, known as MONUC, spoke of the "stench of death" that clung to his clothes and hung over his village for weeks following the attacks.
Most of the dead were men but amongst them were 13 women and 23 children, including a 3-year-old girl who was burned to death.
"The Makombo massacre is one of the worst ever committed by the LRA in its bloody 23-year history," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The four-day rampage demonstrates that the LRA remains a serious threat to civilians and is not a spent force, as the Ugandan and Congolese governments claim."
Horrific as they are such attacks by the LRA are nothing new. Kony, a Christian mystic from northern Uganda launched his rebellion in 1987. He wanted to force out Yoweri Museveni -- himself a rebel leader who took power in 1986 and still leads Uganda 24 years later -- and rule the country according to the Ten Commandments.
Kony's rebellion soon turned maniacal. Feeling betrayed by his own Acholi people, whom he accused of failing to adequately support him, Kony unleashed his forces on civilians in northern Uganda. Soon child abduction, rape, murder, mutilation and pillage became the group's signature style.
To pick just a couple of examples: In 2004, LRA fighters attacked Barlonyo, a camp of people made homeless by the war, and killed well over 300; in 1996, a contingent of rebels raided a girls' school, kidnapping almost 140 to become sex slaves, fighters, porters and cooks. The list goes miserably on year after year.
In 2005, the LRA was pushed out of northern Uganda and soon afterward peace talks seemed to offer a chance of an end to the killing, but they finally petered out in April 2008 after Kony killed the deputy who had been attending the talks and stopped turning up.
Moves are being made to end the LRA scourge. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for Kony and some of his key lieutenants while in the United States a draft anti-LRA law was passed by the Senate in March.
The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act calls on President Barack Obama to help protect the region's civilians, stop Kony's attacks and help rebuild the areas damaged by the conflict.
In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: "I have been following the Lord's Resistance Army for more than 15 years. I just don't understand why we cannot end this scourge. And we're going to do everything we can to provide support we believe will enable us to do that."
In the past the U.S. has been willing to offer actions as well as words in trying to deal with the LRA. Operation Lightning Thunder was launched in December 2008 with U.S. intelligence, air and logistical support to a joint Congolese-Ugandan fighting force.
The aim was to decapitate the LRA but the offensive failed to kill Kony and the LRA responded with deadly revenge attacks on Congolese civilians. Hundreds more civilians died, hundreds more civilians were abducted.
Why not just kill Kony? Most observers agree that his death would mean the end of the LRA whose fighters would be lost without their charismatic leader, but it is not an easy thing to do. In spite of their seemingly cowardly attacks on unarmed civilians, the LRA is an impressive fighting force, its skills honed during decades of fighting on the run in hostile environments.
A common suggestion is that some kind of jungle-ready special forces unit should be deployed to track and kill Kony, but that was attempted by the U.N. in 2006. In an LRA ambush, eight members of a Guatemalan special forces unit were killed by the very fighters they were hunting.
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