ENTEBBE, Uganda — The African Union says it will send 5,000 soldiers to join the hunt for notorious rebel leader Joseph Kony, a new mission that comes amid a wildly popular Internet campaign targeting the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army.
The mission is to be launched in South Sudan on Saturday and will last until Kony is caught, United Nations and African Union officials said at a news conference in Uganda.
"We need to stop Kony with hardware – with military hardware in this case," said Francisco Madeira, the African Union's special envoy on the LRA, on Friday. "We are on a mission to stop him."
Friday's announcement comes the same month an Internet movie campaign by the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children sought to make Kony "famous" so that policymakers would make it a priority to remove him. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times.
Abou Moussa, head of the U.N.'s office in Central Africa, said soaring international interest in Kony had spurred regional efforts to eliminate the LRA.
"The awareness has been useful, very important," he said.
The hunt for Kony has primarily been carried out by troops from Uganda, who received a boost last year when President Barack Obama deployed 100 U.S. forces to help regional governments in the mission. American soldiers are now based in Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Congo.
The LRA is responsible for 2,600 civilian deaths since 2008, according to the African Union.
The African Union mission, to be led by a Ugandan commander, will comprise troops from Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo, countries where Kony's reign of terror has been felt over the years.
The African Union's most prominent military mission is in Somalia, where 17,700 troops – primarily from Uganda, Kenya and Burundi – are fighting al-Shabab militants. The force has made strong gains over the last year, pushing insurgents out of Somalia's capital.
The AU's new focus on Kony dovetails with the Ugandan military's stance that catching or killing Kony would mean the end of the LRA. His forces were ousted from Ugandan territory in 2005.
The officials meeting in Uganda on Friday did not say where the funding for the mission was coming from but acknowledged that finding money was a problem.
Madeira said the coordinated deployment of African troops would "neutralize Kony" and isolate the LRA, whose men have split into in small groups. The LRA is thought to have only 200 to 300 soldiers in it. The group has forced many children to become child soldiers and porters and women and girls to become sex slaves.
Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is believed to be hiding in the Central African Republic.
Kony has stopped using technology like telephones, making it hard to track him down. Ugandan troops operating in the Central African Republic have recently encountered small outfits of the LRA, including a confrontation in which an LRA captain was injured and captured on March 8, according to Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the top Ugandan commander there.
Self-proclaimed mystic Kony began one of a series of initially popular uprisings in northern Uganda after President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986. But tactics of abducting recruits and killing civilians alienated supporters.
The LRA is infamous for kidnapping children for use as soldiers, porters and "wives". Although there are no universally accepted figures, the children are believed to number many thousands. Some are freed after days, others never escape. <br> <em>Trauma counselor Florence Lakor, right, listens to 16-year-old Julius, as he tells of the two years he was forced by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to live as a guerrilla fighter in Sudan and Uganda. (AP)</em>
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the 21-year war. A landmark truce was signed in August 2006 and was later renewed. But negotiations brokered by south Sudanese mediators have frequently stalled.
The cessation of hostilities has been largely respected, but the guerrilla group has said it will never sign a final peace deal unless the International Criminal Court drops indictments against its leaders for atrocities. <br> <em>Uganda's Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, right, and the head of the government peace talk delegation exchanges documents with the leader of the Lords Resistance Army peace talks delegation Martin Ojul, left, after signing a ceasefire agreement at State House in Kampala, Uganda, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007. (AP)</em>
Kony's force was once supported by the Khartoum government as a proxy militia, although Sudan says it has now cut ties with the LRA. Kony left his hideouts in south Sudan in 2005 for the Democratic Republic of Congo's remote Garamba forest. <br> <em>Map shows areas in Africa where the Lord's Resistance Army has had a known presence in the past year. (AP)</em>
Many northerners revile Kony for his group's atrocities, but also blame Museveni for setting up camps for nearly 2 million people as part of his counter-insurgency strategy, fuelling one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. <br> <em>Internally displaced people line up to receive food provided by the World Food Programe, Thursday, June 15, 2006 at the Pabbo camp outside Gulu, northern Uganda. (AP)</em>
Kony has said he is fighting to defend the Biblical Ten Commandments, although his group has also articulated a range of northern grievances, from the looting of cattle by Museveni's troops to demands for a greater share of political power. <br> <em>Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, second right, and his deputy Vincent Otti, right, are seen during a meeting with a delegation of Ugandan officials and lawmakers and representatives from non-governmental organizations, Monday, July 31, 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Congo near the Sudanese border. (AP)</em>