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Sudan Cooperates in Fight Against Ugandan Rebels - 2004-08-04

Marking a major turnaround in policy, the Sudanese government says its army is now fully engaged with Ugandan forces to capture the elusive leader of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. Regional analysts are puzzled by Sudan's decision to help Uganda crush a rebel movement, which Khartoum has tolerated, if not supported, for the past 18 years. The top spokesman for the Sudan People's Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Mohamed Bashir Suleiman, tells VOA that one of the army's first priorities now is to help Uganda capture rebel leader Joseph Kony and put an end to his nearly two-decade-long campaign of terror.

The general says his forces decided to assist the Ugandan army after assessing the needs of the people living in an area of southern Sudan where Mr. Kony and his LRA rebels have been based. General Suleiman says the rebels have long terrorized the people there and have prevented them from leading normal lives.

"We have to cooperate," he said. "We said to the Ugandan government, 'We are suffering. Our people are suffering.'"

Last Wednesday, the Sudanese government gave Ugandan forces permission to cross the so-called red line to hunt for the LRA leader at his operational base, deep in southern Sudan.

The massive raid was the first since the red line was established two years ago, setting a strict limit on how far Ugandan troops could enter Sudanese territory in search of the rebel leader and his followers. Kampala opposed the red line, saying it allowed LRA rebels to launch attacks on villages in northern Uganda and then retreat behind it to relative safety.

Mr. Kony escaped Wednesday's raid, but the Ugandan army hailed it as a major success after its troops reportedly killed more than 120 LRA fighters and seized dozens of automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.

Two days after the raid, top Sudanese and Ugandan commanders met near Juba in southern Sudan and jointly pledged to stop the war, which has caused countless deaths and has driven more than a million and a half people from their homes in the region.

Regional analysts say that last week's events appear to mark a major thaw in relations between Sudan and Uganda.

For years, the two countries had traded bitter accusations. Uganda charged that Sudan gave arms, food, and logistics support to the LRA. Sudan, in turn, claimed that Uganda actively supported the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Army during the group's 20-year struggle against Khartoum.

Many analysts, like Jim Terry with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, believe there is some degree of truth to both claims. But Mr. Terry says he is puzzled by Khartoum's sudden decision to publicly denounce Mr. Kony and the LRA.

"To be honest, I don't really know what is going on," said Jim Terry. "Well, I can speculate about what is going on, but it is hard to tell just how significant that all is."

Analysts say one reason behind Khartoum's move may be that the government is close to signing a comprehensive peace deal with the southern SPLA rebels and may no longer feel threatened by Kampala's support of them.

Khartoum may also be attempting to assuage international anger over the humanitarian crisis and alleged human rights violations in western Darfur by helping end an equally appalling humanitarian and human rights disaster in Uganda.

Mr. Terry at the International Crisis Group says, at this stage, it is too early to tell what Sudan is really trying to achieve and if it is genuine about wanting to improve relations with its southern neighbor.

"Are they cooperating fully? Are they, as they probably have in the past, cooperating but only to a degree? Are they willing to arrest and hand over Kony? One would argue that until they do that, it's a little bit hard to judge how genuine they are in respect to all this," he said.

Joseph Kony began his bloody rebellion against the Ugandan government in the late 1980s, but has never made a detailed statement of his group's demands. His movement is best known for kidnapping tens of thousands of children to be used as fighters and sex slaves and committing horrific atrocities against civilians. Officials at the United Nations say if the 16-month conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan is now the world's worst humanitarian disaster, the LRA rebellion in Uganda has been the world's most neglected.