By Richard Lough
RIVER CHINKO, Central African Republic, April 20 (Reuters) - A Ugandan "hunting squad" pushes through the thick jungle of central Africa in search of the fugitive warlord Joseph Kony.
It is tough terrain that favours the hunted.
At times the Ugandan soldiers cover as little as three kilometres a day, labouring through hanging vines and dense foliage that cut visibility to a few metres and wading chest-deep through crocodile-infested rivers.
The 58-man special operations group, codenamed 77-kilo, is at the forefront of a reinvigorated international drive to close the net on the sadistic Kony and the remnants of his depleted Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group.
The deployment of some 100 U.S. military advisers to the region late last year to support the hunt raised hopes Kony's decades-long campaign, notorious for the rebels' practices of hacking off limbs and abducting children, was doomed.
However, in the steamy forests straddling the borders of Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, the LRA's favoured hideouts since it fled its native Uganda, Kony remains a master of the hostile environment.
"We're hungry to hunt these guys down and take them back home, but it's a tough task," said Private James Mukundane, a sturdy warrior with a broad smile.
Ugandan commanders believe Kony and his two most senior lieutenants, who all face war crimes charges, are in a band of territory several hundred kilometres wide, feeding on wild yams and stolen cattle and drinking from rivers.
Uganda's military estimates the LRA has been reduced to no more than 200 fighters in CAR. Pockets of LRA fighters also remain in Congo. Moving in small groups and avoiding the use of satellite phones and radios, they are hard to intercept.
Less than an hour into 77-Kilo's patrol, the troops, sweat pouring down their brows, encounter nomadic cattle herders. They claim they are from the north of the country but more likely are from Sudan's Darfur region or neighbouring Chad.
Under gentle questioning, they deny any contact with the LRA since the middle of 2011.
It is an unlikely story. Air surveillance images used to help coordinate the search for enemy combatants indicate suspected rebel movements in the area in recent weeks.
Slowly, an Arabic-speaking trooper coaxes the hardest intelligence the squad has received in weeks from Harun Issa, who crouches down and begins sketching a map in the dirt.
"Five days ago your forces were just here, southeast of where we are now," Issa said, jabbing his cane into the dust to mark a point along the river Chinko.
"The distance between your men and them, you could walk in about 20 minutes," he said. The rebels had raided his family's herd twice in the last few days, once in a group of 80 fighters and abducted youngsters.
The rebels' hideout was in a large wooded hollow on the eastern bank of the Chinko, said Issa, whose children had earlier stumbled upon the camp while collecting water.
"Today is a step forward," said the squad's commander, Lieutenant Harold Olet.
It is also a morale booster for Olet's men. Their last contact with the rebels was a brief firefight with two LRA reconnaissance fighters in January. Before that, they had had no contact since September.
Now, in exchange for sugar and medicine, Issa will lead the hunting squad to the rebel group's last known position. Three other hunting squads have been drafted in to support the raid.
Kony, a self-styled mystic leader who at one time wanted to rule Uganda according to the biblical Ten Commandments, fled northern Uganda in 2005, roaming first the lawless expanses of South Sudan, then the isolated northeastern tip of Congo.
In December 2008, Uganda launched Operation Lightning Thunder, dispersing the rebels and pushing them north into CAR. More than three years later, Uganda's force commander Colonel Joesph Balikudembe said the LRA's battle was now to survive.
"We have weakened the LRA in terms of numbers, in terms of weaponry and in terms of the will to fight," said Balikudembe, speaking at the force's main operating base in Nzara, South Sudan.
But regional security forces have failed to land a knockout blow on Kony, who was thrust into the spotlight this year when a video highlighting the mutilations, rapes and murders carried out by his drugged, vicious fighters went viral on the internet.
There are hopes the U.S. forces may prove the game-changer, swinging the cat-and-mouse hunt in Uganda's favour, though Washington's exact role remains vague.
U.S. President Barack Obama, outlining the troops' mission, made clear they would be trainers and advisers to the hunters but would not engage in combat except in self-defence.
Several clean-cut U.S. soldiers were spotted in Nzara and Djema, the Ugandan army's forward operating base about 200 km inside CAR, but they deflected questions with broad smiles.
Balikudembe said they were helping with logistics and intelligence. "We are using our American advisers to see if they can make any interceptions," he said.
Close to the river Chinko, Private Jimmy Odong prepared for 77-kilo's advance on the suspected rebel camp.
The LRA kidnapped Odong and his five brothers in 1994. Then 13, his first order was to bludgeon to death his younger brother who could not keep up with the abducted group.
Killing and looting became routine, his teenage conscience numbed to the atrocities he was committing. Eight years after he escaped, Odong is now one of the hunting squad's "pseudo men".
Clad in tatty fatigues and a beaded necklace, his hair in dreadlocks, Odong's role is to infiltrate rebel outposts, relaying intelligence to the squad in preparation for attack.
"I know their patterns of movement, I know their tactics, I can talk openly with them," Odong said.
The stakes are high. One false move, one incorrect answer and his cover is blown. But Odong's desire to avenge his lost childhood drives him on.
"I hope we get Kony, that the army hands him over to the Hague and he answers the charges against him." (Editing by David Clarke and Tim Pearce)