Kampala – Ugandan troops have rescued almost 150 children from Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels since the start of the year, a spokesperson said on Thursday.
The cult-like group has abducted more than 20 000 children and used them as fighters, porters and sex slaves during its 18-year-old war against the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
“Between January 1 and March 7 we rescued 147 abductees,” said Ugandan army spokesperson Major Shaban Bantariza. He gave no details of the rescues.
Moving swiftly on foot in small groups, the LRA has terrorised remote communities on both sides of Uganda’s border with Sudan. About 1,6 million people have been uprooted in Uganda alone, most of them in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts.
About half the children taken by the rebels over the years have either escaped or been rescued by military patrols, but several hundred youngsters remain captive, and aid workers often call northern Uganda “the world’s biggest hostage situation”.
The LRA’s strength at present is estimated by observers at about 1 200, of whom 700 are women or young children.
Bantariza said troops had killed 185 rebels this year, captured 54, and that 93 others had surrendered. The Ugandan army also recovered 13 000 bullets and 132 rifles, he said.
Talks to the end the war were struck a blow in February by the surrender of the rebels’ main negotiator, but tentative contacts have continued.
So have military operations aimed at hunting down elusive LRA leader Joseph Kony and deputy commander Vincent Otti.
“Otti has fled to Sudan’s Katire Valley,” Bantariza said, adding that more LRA fighters had surrendered since the latest talks with mediators and the government stalled on December 31.
“Some of the rebels were waiting for a deal to end the war, but now they see the peace talks are going nowhere they have decided to come out the bush in bigger numbers,” he said.
There was no way of independently confirming Bantariza’s report on Otti due to the insecurity and remoteness of the area.