US sends in troops to take on Africa's most barbaric guerrillas

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American special forces arrive in Uganda to help tackle group led by bloodthirsty Christian mystic

In a highly unusual move, the United States is venturing into one of Africa's bloodiest conflicts, sending special forces to central Africa to support a decades-long fight against a guerrilla group accused of horrific atrocities. President Barack Obama said the troops will assist local forces in a long-running battle against the Lord's Resistance Army, considered one of Africa's most ruthless rebel groups, and help to hunt down its notorious leader, Joseph Kony.

The first of the troops arrived in Uganda on Wednesday, the White House said, and others will be sent to South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Obama administration said the troops – special forces believed to number about 100 – will advise, rather than engage in combat, unless forced to defend themselves.

While the size of the deployment is small, it is a surprising intervention. Although some US troops are based in Djibouti and small groups of soldiers have been deployed to Somalia, the US traditionally has been reluctant to commit forces to help African nations to put down insurgencies. It demonstrates the Obama administration's escalating attention to and fears about security risks in Africa, including terror networks, piracy and unstable nations.

Pentagon officials said the bulk of the deployment will be of special operations troops, who will provide security and combat training to African units. The move raises the profile of US involvement on the continent – and is an apparent victory for administration officials who have argued for more robust intervention in humanitarian crises. A number of high-ranking Obama advisers have been left scarred by the US failure in the 1990s to intervene to stop genocide in Rwanda and the belated action to halt the violence in Bosnia.

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has waged a 24-year campaign of rebellion, rape and murder in northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Aid agencies say its atrocities have left thousands dead, and have put caused as many as 300,000 people to flight flee from their homes. They say the group deliberately recruits children to bolster its ranks of soldiers and sometimes forces them to become sex slaves. Estimates of children abducted range from 20,000 to more than twice that number with many, according to the Refugee Law Project, made to kill their parents.

The LRA's roots go back to the early 1980s, when a woman called Alice Lakwena claimed the Holy Spirit had ordered her to lead a movement to overthrow the Ugandan government in defence of the Acholi people of the north. She failed and went into exile; Joseph Kony, a former altar boy, then emerged to recast the movement as the Lord's Resistance Army. This seized young people and children, and forced them to fight, committing atrocities by ambushing villagers with machetes, swords, and stones.

Kony – thought to have at least 60 wives – is wanted by the International Criminal Court under a 2005 warrant for crimes against humanity in his native Uganda. A self-styled prophet, who mixes Christian mysticism with politics, he is believed to be hiding somewhere along the Sudan-Congo border. His group is at its weakest point in 15 years, its forces fractured and scattered. The Ugandan military estimated earlier this year that only 200 to 400 fighters remain, with an unknown number of camp followers and helpers, many of whom have been press-ganged. In 2003, the LRA had 3,000 armed troops and 2,000 people in support roles.

Capturing Kony remains the highest priority for Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, who has committed thousands of troops to the African Union force in Somalia to fight militants from the Islamist group al-Shabab. Colonel Felix Kulayigye, Uganda's military spokesman, said of the US deployment: "We are aware that they are coming. We are happy about it. We look forward to working with them and eliminating Kony and his fighters."

A special forces unit can have an effect that is far greater than its numbers might suggest. They are highly skilled in disrupting insurgency networks by discovering where rebels are based and how they procure arms, money and other logistical support. Most of the troops will deploy to regional capitals to work with government officials and military commanders on countering the rebels and protecting civilians.

Coming from Washington's successful, if limited, intervention in Libya, the Uganda deployment represents a continued effort by Mr Obama to use military force for humanitarian protection in areas where atrocities are occurring. Sending 100 troops may not be significant in terms of military numbers, but the composition of the force gives the United States a new counterterrorism foothold in a region of the world that is beset by terrorist networks, kidnappers, pirates and unstable nations.

The US has not had forces in Somalia since pulling out shortly after the 1993 Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu, in which 18 American troops died. The new deployment indicates a change of emphasis for Washington, suggesting that it has overcome its reluctance to commit troops to Africa – a normality reflected in the basing of the US Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent, in Germany. The US maintains a base in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, but most troops there are not on combat missions.

In recent months, the administration has stepped up its support for Uganda, which has played a key role in battling Islamist extremists in Somalia. In June, the Pentagon agreed to send nearly $45m (£28m) in military equipment to Uganda and Burundi. The aid included four small drones, body armour and night-vision equipment, as well as communications gear, and is being used in the fight against Al-Shabaab, an al-Qa'ida-linked group that US officials see as a growing threat and one that African peacekeeping troops in Somalia have been battling to suppress.

Matt Brown, a spokesman for the Enough Project, a US group working to end genocide and crimes against humanity, especially in central Africa, said: "The US doesn't have to fight al-Qa'ida-linked al-Shabaab in Somalia, so we help Uganda take care of their domestic security problems, freeing them up to fight a more dangerous – or a more pressing, perhaps – issue in Somalia. I don't know if we would necessarily say that but it's surely a plausible theory."

Bill Roggio, the managing editor of news blog Long War Journal, called the Obama administration's rationale for sending troops "puzzling", especially since the LRA does not present a national security threat to the US – "despite what President Obama said". He added: "The timing of this deployment is odd, especially given the administration's desire to disengage from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is unclear why the issue has resurfaced, but the administration may be rewarding Uganda for its military contributions in Somalia."

Last November, the US announced a new strategy to counter the LRA's attacks on civilians. US legislation passed last year with huge bipartisan support called for the co-ordination of US diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military efforts against the LRA. That's one reason, Mr Brown said, why Mr Obama may be sending in advisers. He said that regional stability is also good for US interests. "It doesn't take that many US resources," Mr Brown said. "You've got 100 troops to go in and take care of the LRA problem once and for all." AP

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