Sunday, February 15, 2009

Congo catastrophe

UN official: Botched attacks on LRA rebels in Congo 'catastrophic' for civilians

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security update
February 10, 2009

A top UN official said Tuesday that the recent US-backed military attack on Ugandan rebels had been "catastrophic" for Congolese civilians, according to media reports.

At least 900 civilians were killed in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo by small groups from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) as they fled a joint military offensive launched Dec. 14 by Uganda with help from the Congolese military. (See a BBC map of LRA bases and attacks here.)

The UN official's comments followed a New York Times report Friday breaking the news that the US had helped plan and fund the attack from its new Africa Command.

The BBC reported that John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian chief, made the comments while visiting Doruma, a city in northeast Congo near the scene of the atrocities.

But BBC and Reuters also quoted Mr. Holmes as saying that the offensive should continue against the LRA, a rebel group known for its brutal attacks against civilians and its abduction of children to use as child soldiers or sex slaves.

"I think they need to see the operation through. I don't know how long that will take ... but I think there is no point in putting a premature end to it," Holmes said. The decision lay with the Congolese and Ugandan governments, he said. "We, meanwhile, will try to pick up the pieces as best we can."

Reuters reports that some 13,000 civilians had fled their homes for Doruma, and that the UN had reported that 700 people – including 540 children – had been abducted by the LRA "to become fighters, porters, or sex slaves."

On Friday The New York Times reported that the US had paid for and helped plan the botched attack on the LRA.

Uganda and its neighbors had lost patience with the LRA for failing to sign a peace deal and were looking to wipe out or cripple the group via military means.

But the raid "went awry," the newspaper reports, and "the rebel leaders escaped, breaking their fighters into small groups that continue to ransack town after town in northeastern Congo, hacking, burning, shooting, and clubbing to death anyone in their way."

The New York Times detailed the extent of US involvement, citing US military officials.

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

Despite criticisms of the horrific consequences of the botched raid, a US official denied responsibility.

"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. "In the end, it was not our operation."

UN News reported that 40,000 civilians have also been displaced in south Sudan by LRA attacks. It said that the LRA was relatively restrained as long as peace talks were on.

The LRA has been present in the area around Duru in Haut Uele district [areas in northeast Congo where atrocities were committed] since 2005, but had mostly refrained from attacks on civilians, particularly while the peace talks continued. However, between Dec. 2007 and Aug. 2008, LRA rebels committed grave attacks on populations in DRC, Central African Republic and South Sudan, killing, pillaging, raping and abducting adults and children.

The news agency Afrol News said that 100 civilians had been massacred early this month in the most recent attack. It reported that the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony. He has refused to sign a peace deal with the government until the warrant is withdrawn.

Uganda has negotiated with the LRA since 2006 in an effort to bring an end to a two-decade conflict in which tens of thousands of people have died and more than 1.5 million have been displaced.

The Associated Press reported that the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo has not been effective at preventing the LRA to spread terror at will.

The 17,000-strong UN mission in Congo is mandated to protect civilians, but its troops are mostly posted further south, around cities including Goma where separate fighting has taken place. Hunting the Ugandan rebels, who have split up into several groups, has been complicated by Congo's own brutal civil war and the involvement of troops from neighboring Rwanda.

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