KAMPALA (Reuters) – Ugandan rebels shot and burnt to death 192 people in a camp for displaced civilians in their bloodiest attack in years, a local official said on Sunday.
The killings by guerrillas of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group based in lawless areas of neighbouring southern Sudan, cast fresh doubt on repeated recent assertions by the Ugandan government that its army is about to defeat the LRA.
The chief administration officer of northern Lira district, Daniel Odwedo, said authorities had counted 192 bodies following the attack on Ogur camp, making it one of the worst killings in the LRA’s 17-year-old insurgency.
“They have counted 192. I’m here at the hospital in Lira and this is the toll we have received,” Odwedo told Reuters from the district’s capital, which bears the same name.
In the Saturday evening attack rebels attacked the camp of 4,000 people with automatic weapons and hand grenades and then set fire to grass-thatched huts in which people were hiding, Odwedo said.
A Catholic priest who works in the area earlier put the toll at 173. “I counted 121 bodies and the other 52 had already been buried in a mass grave by that time,” Father Sebat Ayala said by telephone from Lira town 300 km (186.4 miles) north of Kampala.
“According to the local militia the rebels started the attack from a distance using artillery fire.”
“The militia, seeing they were overpowered, told the villagers to flee into the nearby bushes but the villagers fled into their grass-thatched huts which the rebels set on fire.”
The Eritrean-born priest said the 36 militia tasked with guarding the camp of 4,800 inhabitants were no match for the 100 or so heavily-armed rebels.
Most camp dwellers managed to escape into the nearby bush and returned to the camp on Sunday morning, the priest said.
LRA attacks on civilians have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their villages in northern Uganda for shelter in protected camps, which are the subject of periodic LRA raids.
In their bloodiest recent attack, rebels shot or hacked to death more than 50 people at a refugee camp in Abia district.
17-YEAR OLD REVOLT
The LRA is led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony and has defied repeated assaults by the Ugandan army. But the government insists the days of the rebels are numbered.
The army said the Saturday attack was revenge by the rebels after government soldiers killed at least 95 rebels in the north in the last three days.
The army said the LRA’s tactics is to attack the camps — mostly guarded by pro-government militias — so that the army is forced to return to the camps and stop pursuing rebels into the bushes.
“What they have done in Lira is a revenge attack. These are the kicks of a dying horse,” said army spokesman in northern Uganda Paddy Ankunda. “We have been putting them under pressure and they hit soft targets in retaliation.”
The rebels have abducted thousands of children for use as fighters or sex slaves. The LRA says it is fighting to improve the lot of Uganda’s northern Acholi people but has not made a clear public statement detailing its demands.