Uganda's Minister of State for Defense says she is shocked by accusations that soldiers in the Ugandan army have been illegally logging valuable timber from southern Sudan and taking it back to Uganda. The allegations were made earlier this week in a detailed report by the independent Swiss-based research group, Small Arms Survey. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has the story from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Monday's report by the Small Arms Survey is largely based on interviews with eyewitnesses, who say that Ugandan soldiers have been clearing teak forests in southern Sudan since they arrived in the area in March 2003.
The report says army officers, described as being business-minded, are supervising the illegal logging. In one forest near Uganda's border with Sudan, witnesses say as many as 200 trees were cut down before local authorities could be notified. The trees, they say, have been hauled away by trucks to Uganda.
Teak is durable wood, mainly used in shipbuilding and for manufacturing outdoor furniture. It is resistant to warping and to insect and water damage, making the wood valuable and highly-prized around the world.
The Ugandan soldiers are in southern Sudan taking part in Operation Iron Fist, a Sudan-approved military operation aimed at flushing out fighters from the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army, who moved their bases from northern Uganda to southern Sudan in 1994.
In an interview earlier in the week with Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper, an Ugandan intelligence officer, Colonel Charles Otema, acknowledged that the army has known about the allegations of illegal logging in Sudan for quite some time and even launched an internal investigation. Colonel Otema says the investigation failed to prove any wrongdoing.
Uganda Minister of State for Defense Ruth Nankabirwa tells VOA that she knew nothing about the allegations until they appeared in the Small Arms Survey this week.
"It is the first time I am hearing [about] these allegations based on our presence in Sudan," said Nankabirwa. "But I am not going to just let the allegations lie. We are trying to find out the basis of the allegations and we shall be guided by our own findings."
This is not the first time the Ugandan army has been accused of looting natural resources from a neighboring country.
At the World Court in The Hague two years ago, the government in Congo Kinshasa demanded compensation from Uganda, after it accused Ugandan commanders of committing massive human rights abuses and stealing gold, diamonds, and timber from the country between 1998 and 2002.
Uganda and Rwanda invaded eastern Congo in 1998, after rebel factions they supported took up arms against the late Congolese President Laurent Kabila.
A cease-fire was declared a year later and Uganda eventually withdrew its troops in 2002. But a 2001 U.N. report condemned Uganda and Rwanda for perpetuating the conflict, partly to loot Congo Kinshasa's natural resources.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni dismissed the charges, saying there was nothing of value in Congo to exploit.