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Ugandan Rebel Group Motives Unclear as Terror Campaign Expands

The Ugandan rebel group Lord's Resistance Army is increasingly venturing out from its new base in the Democratic Republic of Congo into neighboring South Sudan and the Central African Republic, expanding what was already a transnational conflict. While humanitarian groups call attention to the plight of the locals terrorized by the LRA, analysts struggle to explain what strategy - if any - is driving the rebel group's movements.

The guerrilla group led by international fugitive Joseph Kony is perhaps best known for its tactic of abducting children to replenish its ranks and for its leader's mysterious claims to being a prophet of God.

The LRA began intensifying civilian attacks in the DRC a year ago, but the group is now regularly crossing the border into neighboring Central African Republic and the Western Equatorial region of southern Sudan.

David Nthengwe, a spokesman for the United Nations agency UNHCR based in eastern Congo, says that approximately 400,000 have been displaced in the region by the LRA in the past year.

He says the brutal attacks are usually carried out by small bands of LRA guerillas who loot the towns and leave little in their wake.

"The attacks have been systematic attacks where the LRA targets the civilians in the villages, attacking these villages and then burning these villages, kidnapping the woman and children - the adults also in some cases - and also raping women and killing the civilians," said Nthengwe.

According to U.N. officials, the attacks on civilians have been increasing and pouring over into surrounding areas.

A UNHCR official based in South Sudan confirmed to VOA that it had started receiving a steady flow of refugees from the Central African Republic, adding to the large number of Congolese refugees who were displaced by the group.

But one of the agency's three refugee camps in the Western Equatorial region recently had to be re-located after its town was attacked by a group of LRA during a food distribution exercise. All U.N. personnel have now been barred from the entering the town.

Local authorities in southern Sudan say that since the start of the year 186, people have been killed by the LRA and 133 abducted, mostly young girls. The U.N. says that violence has displaced 165,000 in South Sudan alone.

The erratic movements of Kony's men are rapidly expanding the number of outside players into the conflict. His followers are now targets of the Ugandan, south Sudanese, CAR, and the U.N.-backed Congolese forces, leading many to question what objective his latest moves could possibly be designed to reach.

David Matsanga, the former chief negotiator for Kony in peace negotiations with the Ugandan government, expressed exasperation at trying to comprehend the motives behind the expanding attacks. Kony has failed to show up to sign the peace agreement Matsanga helped negotiate.

"That's why I've quit," said Matsanga. "Where Kony is fighting from is different from where I went to negotiate this agreement. I negotiated this agreement for the people of Uganda. If he is fighting, he is fighting for something that I don't understand."

Kony reportedly wants the International Criminal Court to drop its arrest warrant against him before he signs any deal. Some have speculated that Kony hopes his new destructive rampage will raise international pressure for renewed negotiations.

But Louise Khabure, an analyst on the LRA for International Crisis Group, thinks this analysis is unlikely.

"I like to look at things logically," he said. "What are your chances of negotiating peace when now we have over 1000 civilians dead? I think it reduces your chances and your ability to be able to talk peace and to talk amnesty."

Khabure said that her best sense of the situation is that the LRA's original objectives were long ago hijacked by the numerous outside groups who benefited from the region's instability and began supporting Kony's rebels.

She says the list of alleged former supporters of the LRA include northern Ugandan leaders, opposition leaders in the Ugandan diaspora, elements in south Sudan, and Khartoum. Although she couldn't name who might now be sponsoring the group, she thinks it's unlikely the LRA has been able to sustain its campaign this long without outside help.

Unfortunately for the civilians who must live under the group's ravaged domain, Khabure says that the military campaigns against the group are clearly not working.

"What is clear to me is that they don't seem cornered," he said. "The [Ugandan] operation Lightning Thunder was launched, and to date we have no inkling from Kony or the LRA that they are willing to talk, or that they are cornered, or that they are under pressure."

Uganda was given permission by Congolese authorities to carry out attacks against the rebel group late last year. Uganda claims that it has since withdrawn its troops, but it is reported that Ugandan forces remain.