NAIROBI, Kenya — The ruthless African bush fighter that some 100 U.S. military advisers will soon help hunt down was almost caught by Ugandan troops earlier this month, a military official said Monday.
Ugandan troops almost caught Joseph Kony, the leader of the so-called Lord's Resistance Army, in the village of Ndjema in the impoverished nation of Central African Republic, Col. Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for Uganda's military spokesman, told The Associated Press by phone. But Kony's guards were fanned out around him and began exchanging gunfire with the Ugandan squad.
"What happened is that he escaped," Kulayigye said from Kampala, Uganda. "The squad that was chasing him was unable to get him because those that guard him guard from a distance and engaged our forces before we could reach him."
President Barack Obama announced Friday he is dispatching about 100 U.S. troops – mostly special operations forces – to central Africa to advise in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla group Kony leads accused of widespread atrocities across several countries.
Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for heinous attacks in multiple countries.
A U.S. official in Uganda on Monday said that the decision to deploy U.S. forces is an extension of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, U.S. legislation that passed with strong bipartisan support.
"The deployment is starting this month, and many of the U.S. personnel that deploy for this mission will carry out support functions in Uganda only. Only a portion of the personnel will travel to field locations," said the U.S. official, Virginia Blaser.
The LRA has been responsible for at least 2,400 attacks and 3,400 abductions since 2008, Blaser said. The U.N. says the group has carried out approximately 250 attacks this year.
The LRA once fought Ugandan troops in the country's north, but have been flushed out of the country. The LRA now operates in South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic. Special Ugandan squads specifically hunting Kony and other LRA fighters operate in those countries with permission of the host governments, Kulayigye said.
"Over recent years, the Ugandan military has persevered through some of the most difficult terrain in the world, and significantly reduced the LRA's numbers and kept them from regrouping," Blaser said.
Long considered one of Africa's most brutal rebel groups, the Lord's Resistance Army began its attacks in Uganda more than 20 years ago. But the rebels are at their weakest point in 15 years. Their forces are fractured and scattered, and Kulayigye said Monday he believes the LRA currently has about 200 fighters. In 2003 the LRA had 3,000 armed troops and 2,000 people in support roles.
The Ugandan military spokesman said he believes the U.S. advisers will add to Uganda's capabilities, especially with technology. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Sunday that the U.S. has been supporting its fight against Kony already, including sharing satellite intelligence and assisting with helicopters.
Some experts suggest that the U.S. move is to reward Uganda for its contributions to the African Union force in Somalia that fights the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militia.
The LRA's tactics have been widely condemned as vicious. The U.S. troops will be helping to fight a group that has slaughtered thousands of civilians and routinely kidnaps children to be child soldiers and sex slaves.
The U.S. has spent $497 million in northern Uganda in humanitarian aid and development programs since October 2008, Blaser said. The protection of civilians, she said, is central to the U.S. strategy and helps anchor America's long-term partnership with Uganda.