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Ugandan Rebel Group Remains a Mystery 20 Years On

FILE - Congolese soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo [FARDC] launch missiles during their military operation against Ugandan Islamist group, Allied Democratic Forces, outside Beni, in North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 2014.

This week a U.N. Security Council committee placed sanctions on a Ugandan Islamist group, the Allied Democratic Forces, for using child soldiers, killing and abusing women and children, and attacks on U.N. peacekeepers. Council diplomats say the group, which has been operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, will now be subject to travel bans and asset freezes.

The Allied Democratic Forces is one of the oldest armed groups in eastern Congo, but it is also one of the most mysterious. The ADF originated as a coalition of groups in western Uganda who found themselves marginalized after the fall of the late president Idi Amin.

In the early 1990s they regrouped inside Congo, in the territory of Beni, where they forged alliances with powerful individuals from the Nande community and made money from timber and gold.

ADF's various links

The Ugandan government has alleged that ADF has support from Sudan, an assertion backed up by Western diplomatic sources. It also says the ADF has links with Somalia’s al-Shabab, although some analysts contest this.

Analysts agree the group has a bad human rights record. Residents of Beni are calling for an investigation of mass graves that were found near some former ADF camps to see if people the group kidnapped were buried there.

"The ADF is particularly known for its kidnapping campaigns," said Timo Mueller, who studies armed groups in eastern Congo for the U.S.-based Enough project. "They kidnapped people -- children, as well as elderly people -- in 2013. Unfortunately, this did not evoke the same kind of international outrage that another rebel group in Nigeria, Boko Haram, caused."

Hardly any of the kidnap victims have been found, and very few of the estimated 800 to 1,200 ADF fighters have deserted or been captured. Mueller suggested they differ somewhat from Congo’s other armed groups.

"Unfortunately few people have direct insights into the group’s dynamics, but what is known is that this group is Islamic in nature - fundamentalist in nature," he said. "There’s a strong ideology and also coercion and a control system inside the group."

Intensified operations

In the past six months the Congolese army, or FARDC, has stepped up operations against the group, and both sides have taken significant casualties.

"The FARDC did secure most of the group’s former strongholds, but the problem is that the ADF has not been neutralized yet," said Mueller. "Rather, the problem has been displaced elsewhere, namely to the Orientale province, north of their former strongholds, so the FARDC, together with the U.N. peacekeeping mission need to keep up the pressure on the ADF, not just militarily but also economically."

Mueller believes the U.N. sanctions will help to weaken the group, but says other actions will be needed.

"I think overall sanctions against the rebel leaders, or against the rebel group as such, are important but they are not sufficient. They do have an effect," he said. "There are travel bans in place, limitations against their financial transactions, cutting off their revenues, not all of them but some that are important."

The governor of Congo’s North Kivu province recently praised the army for its success against the ADF, but said he thought it might take another six months to a year to finish them off.