Monday, February 16, 2009

Things fall apart

Troubling new information emerging from the surrender negotiations of two commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army indicate that the deal is collapsing.

While the Congolese government is telling the world that LRA chief Joseph Kony and about 250 rebels are trapped in a swamp in the Garamba jungle in north-eastern DR Congo, word comes from the Daily Monitor in Kampala that one of the commanders is under arrest by Kony.

The commander, Okot Odhiambo, was reportedly severely wounded and about two weeks ago called the aid group, International Organization for Migration, to help negotiate his surrender along with a small force of soldiers and captives.

While no one knows if the arrest claim is legitimate, it means someone is trying to block the deal. That would most likely be Kony, who would see his army cut in half and leave him isolated. Or, it could be one of his supporters on the outside, who are trying to block or delay his capture.

Along with Odhiambo, his other top commander, Dominic Ongwen, has also asked for a surrender. It hasn't happened yet and word has been scarce. And, since the flow of information to the public is being carefully controlled by the Ugandan government, we're not going to be told the truth.

But, if Kony does have Odhiambo in his grasp, it means certain death for Odhiambo. Kony killed his former deputy, Vincent Otti, in October 2007 after Otti pushed too hard for the peace deal with Uganda and was prepared to take his followers, about half of the LRA, out of the bush.

If Kony has reasserted himself into the situation, it would be typical Kony tactics. By "arresting" Odhiambo and executing him, he would be enforcing his brutal and blood form of discipline, insuring that any others who want to desert stay with him out of pure fear.

The call regarding the arrest does not square with comments by Congo spokesman Lambert Mende who told AFP news agency, “They have no way out of these swamps except to surrender,” regarding the LRA.

He also said that a UN peacekeeping force in Sudan, UNMIS, had been preparing their return to Uganda. Was this all a publicity stunt to help a mission that has failed to kill or capture the LRA leaders?

“For reasons that remain unclear none of the combatants had presented themselves at the designated rendezvous as of Saturday afternoon,” said David Gressly, UNMIS regional coordinator for southern Sudan.

Odhiambo and Ongwen are wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kony's last days?

We've heard this before.

Joseph Kony and his cult of child killers, the Lord's Resistance Army, is surrounded, and now it's only a matter of time before he's captured.

These are the words uttered recently by the spokesman for the Ugandan army, which currently has Kony on the run in Garamba National Park in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Perhaps it is true. We know that Kony's two top commanders, Okot Odhiambo and Domnic Ongwen, both wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, are negotiating their surrender.

When that may happen is not known. But the fact that they've broken away from Kony and want to give up their fight is significant. It will leave Kony more isolated than in the past, even though he theoretically has the bulk of his force under this command.

According to reports, that force is only about 200 or 250 fighters, along with about and equal number of abductees, women and children.

If the numbers are accurate, it's a greatly reduced force from the 500 or 600 fighters that Kony supposedly commanded earlier

However, I can't help but remember being told that Kony's days were numbered when I interviewed the Ugandan army intelligence chief in northern Uganda in 2005.

At the time, Kony's force was migrating across south Sudan toward the DRC, but LRA units still controlled most of the north and were inflicting serious damage at will. An army convoy had been attacked and half a dozen Ugandan soldiers had been killed.

The attack was dismissed as the "final kicks of a dying horse," a favorite phrase of the Ugandan army. Sadly, they use it too much, even though it's now 2009, some four years later, and Kony and the LRA are still out there.

However, maybe it is true this time. Despite the botched attack on Kony's camps on Dec. 14, Kony's forces are scattered, their communications are down, and their ammo much be all but expended.

But Kony has been in tight spots before. What's next?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Escapee: Kony is angry

As information dribbles out regarding Uganda's faltering military operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo against Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, we learn that Kony is angry.

Well, why not? His camps were bombed and now his top two commanders are negotiating their surrender.

In a story from the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, we learn from an escapee who was with the LRA camp when it was attacked, that Kony was already gone.

"The first day of the attack I was in the camp," said 21-year-old Jackline Apio, who had been in captivity for six years.

"LRA leader Joseph Kony had told us a day earlier there were plans to bomb the camp and ordered all his commanders and other soldiers to leave immediately."

This begs the question, how did he know? It also confirms earlier suspicions that Kony has informers close to the government.

Apio continues: "At about 11 a.m., after we had cooked, we heard the sound of approaching helicopters. Minutes later they [the helicopters] started bombing the camp. We all ran away. "

Why did Kony not have everyone abandon the camp? There have been strong fears that Kony would use the hundreds of abductees as human shields in case of an attack, which is why many in the international community have resisted attacking Kony long ago.

Here we can clearly see that Kony sacrificed these civilians to cover his escape and those of his fighters and commanders.

This should also provide insight into the kind of man we're dealing with.

Apio: "After two hours the rebels came back [to the camp] and collected food, medicine and weapons they had abandoned. The rebels, women and children later joined Kony."

Now it gets interesting: "He was looking enraged, and we started walking towards [the] Central African [Republic]," Apio says.

"Kony later changed [his] plans and ordered everyone to split into groups of 10, including the women and children. He said we should all remain in [DR] Congo. I don’t know where he went, but he remained somewhere with a few soldiers."

Again, Kony's cunning becomes apparent. He knows that others know he has wanted to go the CAR for a long time. Most suspected he would. Knowing that, however, he reverses course, and decides to stay. The only way his army can survive, however, is for them to break into small groups -- again his standard tactic, but quite effective.

But, there is a risk, of course, and that is losing his command and control.

"Our group was led by Dominic Ongwen [Kony’s deputy]. We were 30 and were attacked several times by UPDF [Ugandan People’s Defence Forces] soldiers. On 22 January in the afternoon, our group was attacked by UPDF; we had walked the whole night and were resting," she continues.

"I was shot in my left thigh. Then the [UPDF] commander appeared and ordered [the] soldiers not to shoot children or women.

"The other rebels ran away. We were five, two babies, two young children and I. I thought I would not survive; everyone was screaming and children crying. I said my last prayer because Kony [had] told us that anyone caught by the UPDF would be killed."

This is what Kony tells his captives in order to keep them under his tumb.

Ironically, it is Ongwen and Kony's latest deputy, Okot Odhiambo, who now want to surrender. As I have mentioned, this will be a serious blow to Kony's forces, and if nothing else, will cause others in his camp to do the same.

However, Kony is still out there.

As Apio explains, "It is difficult to get Kony, he keeps changing his location. Not even his commanders know his real location because he does not use satellite phones."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

U.S. helpled plan botched attack

The New York Times today confirmed what I have reported for weeks now, that the Ugandan army attack on the camps of rebel leader Joseph Kony and his brutal band of killers, the Lord's Resistance Army, was botched.

New, however, is that finally the U.S. military admits it was involved in the training of the special forces that attacked Kony's camps in the Garamba National Park of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the planning of the operation.

However, the comments made by the U.S. forces are very reserved, as if they are trying to distance themselves from a poorly executed plan that has resulted in a bloody rampage by the LRA that has killed some 900 people.

It is the first time the United States has helped plan such a specific military offensive with Uganda, according to senior American military officials, the Times reported.

They described a team of 17 advisers and analysts from the Pentagon’s new Africa Command working closely with Ugandan officers on the mission, providing satellite phones, intelligence and $1 million in fuel, the Times reported.

However, the newspaper reports, no American forces ever got involved in the ground fighting in this isolated, rugged corner of Congo, but human rights advocates and villagers rightly complained that the Ugandans and the Congolese troops who carried out the operation did little or nothing to protect nearby villages, despite a history of rebel reprisals against civilians.

As I have written and told to the BBC, which interviewed me on the topic several weeks ago, "the troops did not seal off the rebels’ escape routes or deploy soldiers to many of the nearby towns where the rebels slaughtered people in churches and even tried to twist off toddlers’ heads," the Times reported.

Further, the Times explained that American officials conceded that the operation did not go as intended, and that villagers were left exposed.

“We provided insights and alternatives for them to consider, but their choices were their choices,” said one American military official who was briefed on the operation, referring to the African forces on the ground, according to the Times.

“In the end, it was not our operation.”

That doesn't sound like a whopping endorsement for the results.

Maj. Felix Kulayigye, a Ugandan military spokesman, declined to discuss the American involvement and simply said, “There was no way to prevent these massacres,” according to The Times.

If there is any good to come to light, it is that in fact the U.S. has become involved actively in some of Africa's most important tragedies. However, the new AfriCOM which lead the way here, hopefully learned a lesson that planning is only the first step.

Ensuring proper execution of such missions must be also integral to the mission, or as we have seen, the results are catastrophic.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dominic makes two

The French Press Agency is reporting that Dominic Ongwen, another deputy commander of the Lord's Resistance Army, also wants to surrender to Ugandan forces fighting in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The possible surrender of Ongwen follows last week's request by LRA deputy commander Okot Odhiambo, who is currently negotiating the terms of a surrender.

If true, the defection and surrender of these commanders would leave Kony largely isolated, yet still with the bulk of his army in the DRC, said to be some 600 or 700 men.

The surrender of both these men would be a huge success for the Ugandan army and theoretically for the international community since both are wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

"Dominic Ongwen is here with me, we are together," Odhiambo told AFP by phone from his jungle hide-out, adding they had 120 LRA fighters with them.

Meanwhile, word continues to trickle out about the possible surrender of the deputy commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, Okot Odhiambo.

According to the Daily Monitor newspaper in Kampala, the Ugandan army commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brig. Gen. Patrick Kankiriho, has given Odhiambo a map sketching out where Odhiambo and his men can surrender.

The options are several locations, or any church or the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) outpost.

“I sent him a sketch map of areas where he can report. I told him if he cannot report in those areas where the UPDF is, he can go to any church or the UN,” Kankiriho told the Monitor.

The church suggestion is ironic since Odhiambo and his men are thought to have been behind a slaughter in a church of about 50 people in the Doruma area in December.

This communique to Odhiambo is the first hard information that the negotiations, which began last week, are still on-going with the rebel unit, said to nubmer about 85 people, including about 45 soldiers, 20 abductees and non-combatants.

"If Odhiambo responds and says he is at point A, then we will know he is serious. We will not hurt him. We can even leave our guns behind and we get UN to escort us and we meet him,” Kankiriho said.

If Odhiambo surrenders, it will be a major success for the Ugandan military strike that began Dec. 14 and sent the LRA, lead by Joseph Kony, on a killing rampage that has taken the lives of nearly 1,000 civilians in the region.

But how long the Ugandan army can or will stay in northeastern DRC? Congolese officials have set today, Friday, Feb. 6, as the deadline for Uganda's withdrawal from the region.

The deadline makes no sense, of course, given the current negotiations, but the Congo is under pressure to rid itself of foreign forces. Neighboring Rwanda currently has about 2,000 troops in the Kivu provinces of eastern DRC, who are ridding the region of the Hutu militias.

The two situation are virtually unrelated, but problematic, none-the-less.

Certainly, simple logic dictates that Uganda should continue this operation against Kony and the LRA, since in both this situation and the Kivus, the DRC is incapable of controlling or solving the problem.

But this also raises the question whether Uganda can solve the Kony problem as well. Given the botched operation that began the current mess, there are serious doubts for any permanent solution.

The question also arises as to why Kony and his army are in the DRC in the first place. Why didn't Uganda solve the Kony problem sometime during the 20 years he fought in Uganda?

What makes Uganda think it can do the job now?