US President Barack Obama has ordered a sharp increase in Special Operations forces deployed to Uganda and sent US military aircraft there for the first time in the on-going effort to hunt down warlord Joseph Kony across a broad swath of central Africa.
The CV-22 Osprey aircraft will arrive in Uganda by midweek, along with refuelling aircraft and about 150 Air Force Special Operations forces and other airmen, according to Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defence for African affairs.
The White House began to notify Congress, under the War Powers Act, of the new deployments as they began on Sunday night. Ms Dory and other officials emphasised that the Ospreys will be used for troop transport and that the rules of engagement remain the same as for about 100 Special Operations troops that Mr Obama first sent to help find Kony in October 2011.
US personnel are authorised to “provide information, advice and assistance” to an African Union military task force tracking Kony and his organisation, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), across Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and DR Congo. While combat-equipped, they are prohibited from engaging LRA forces unless in self-defence.
Kony, whose forces have spent years attacking central African villages, mutilating civilians and stealing children, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. His organisation is thought to have been decimated in recent years through military action against it and defections.
LRA attacks have decreased and the number of people killed has dropped more than 75 per cent since 2010, said Grant Harris, senior African affairs director for the National Security Council. Three of the organisation’s five commanders have been “removed … from the battlefield” since May 2012, he said.
But Kony has not been definitively sighted for some time. His force is now thought to number no more than 250 fighters who shift position frequently within a wide area across the target countries. Most recently, he has been thought to be somewhere in the heavy jungle of the eastern Central African Republic, a country virtually without a government.
US and AU forces pursuing Kony operate out of bases in Uganda. Administration officials who described the new deployments insisted they did not imply any weakening in the Obama administration’s criticism of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni for signing a new law imposing harsh penalties for “homosexual offences”.
Mr Obama warned that the law, passed last month by the Ugandan parliament, was a “step backward for all Ugandans”, and the administration said it would review bilateral relations, including $400m in annual US aid to Uganda.
“Ensuring justice and accountability for human rights violators like the LRA and protecting” the rights of gay and transgendered persons “are not mutually exclusive,” Mr Harris said.
Ms Dory, at the Pentagon, declined to specify the exact number of Ospreys that are being sent to Uganda or where they would be based inside the country.
The Pentagon, the State Department and AU task force commanders requested the aircraft last year to better enable the quick transport of troops to areas where they have received intelligence about Kony.
“They will make a significant difference in the ability to respond to leads” about Kony’s whereabouts, many of them generated through growing defections from Kony’s ranks, Ms Dory said.
LRA atrocities publicised on the internet sparked interest among tens of thousands of young people in the United States, many of whom wrote to their members of Congress.
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