KAMPALA, July 15 (Reuters) – Ugandan troops backed by helicopter gunships have captured a key commander from the shadowy Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, the Ugandan army said on Thursday.
It said the commander, Kenneth Banya, had probably not been involved in any atrocities attributed to the LRA and might be allowed to retire in his home area under an amnesty.
Banya was a brigadier in the cult-like LRA, which has waged a 18-year-old conflict against government troops in the remote north of the east African country. Some 1.6 million people have fled their homes to escape the fighting.
“Banya was the most highly trained officer in the LRA,” Major Shaban Bantariza, Uganda’s army spokesman, told Reuters by telephone. “He was virtually indispensable to them, and his capture has certainly left a gap that they cannot fill at all. They have no replacement for Banya among their ranks.”
Banya, who formerly served in the army of late dictator Idi Amin and was trained to fly helicopters and fighter jets in the former Soviet Union, was captured on Tuesday in northern Uganda’s Gulu district, he said.
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Banya was also once part of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s military escort when Museveni was defence minister in the early 1980s.
He later joined the LRA, led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony, which has spread terror across large swathes of northern Uganda. Most Ugandans say the group appears to have no clear political aims beyond overthrowing Museveni’s government.
The rebels are known for their brutality, routinely targeting civilians, slicing off the lips and ears of their victims and kidnapping tens of thousands of children who are forced to serve them as fighters, porters and sex slaves.
Bantariza said white-haired Banya, who was a member of the LRA High Command and a military adviser to Kony, was not believed to have committed atrocities against civilians.
“We do not have information that he was personally involved in any of these gruesome massacres,” he said. “I think it is likely that he will now benefit from the government’s offer of amnesty and retire to his home area.”
On Tuesday 300 younger LRA fighters who had surrendered to Ugandan troops were inducted into the army at a ceremony at a stadium in the northern town of Gulu.
After his capture, Banya was taken to meet the deputy chief of the U.S. European Command, General Charles Wald, who was visiting Uganda on Wednesday. The European Command also covers Africa, and Wald earlier met Museveni in the capital Kampala.
The United States says it helps the Ugandan government protect civilians in the north by providing limited military aid including trucks, radios and human rights training.