KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — The U.S. government's decision to deploy military aircraft and additional troops could be "the decisive game changer" in the hunt for fugitive rebel leader Joseph Kony, whose notorious group, the Lord's Resistance Army, appears weaker than ever before amid growing defections and the loss of senior commanders, an expert said Monday.
The U.S. military aircraft will allow the anti-Kony mission to "act swiftly" in response to suspected LRA hiding places or attacks, said Kasper Agger, an Africa researcher with the watchdog group Enough Project.
"The timing is right," he said, adding that the deployment of the innovative Osprey aircraft "could be the decisive game changer in the mission to end the LRA."
The White House said early Monday that the U.S. is sending a limited number of CV-22 Osprey aircraft, refueling planes and "associated support personnel" to assist African forces chasing Kony in remote parts of Central Africa. The Washington Post reported that four Osprey aircraft and 150 more Air Force special operations members and airmen would be sent to Uganda.
The aircraft would be based in Uganda —whose military is leading the anti-Kony mission — but will be used in LRA-affected areas of Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan, said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council. The additional support would enable African forces "to conduct targeted operations to apprehend remaining LRA combatants," she said.
The deployment of more military personnel will boost the 100 U.S. troops who have been supporting African forces as military advisers since 2011. They are not authorized to engage in direct combat with LRA fighters except in self-defense. The U.S. advisers are assisting about 2,500 African Union troops to chase LRA fighters in a jungle about the size of France.
Uganda's military praised the deployment of the CV-22 Osprey, a versatile aircraft that can fly like a plane and a helicopter. Its ability to take off and land vertically should make it useful in the heavy jungle areas where the troops are operating.
"These aircraft are very helpful. They enhance our capacity, particularly in the search operations, reconnaissance, airlifts," said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the Ugandan military spokesman.
The LRA is perhaps Africa's most infamous rebel group, thanks to the efforts of U.S.-based watchdog group Invisible Children that highlighted Kony's crimes in 2012 in an online video that was widely viewed and urged the international community to put more resources toward ending the LRA threat.
Months later, the African Union announced it was setting up a Uganda-led force to hunt down the LRA in the vast jungle across Central Africa. The LRA, which originated in Uganda in the 1980s as a tribal uprising against the country's president, is notorious for abducting children, making the boys fight and using the girls as sex slaves. In 2005 Kony became the first suspect to be indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The LRA appears to be in rapid decline. After it was ousted from Ugandan territory in 2005, the group scattered into parts of Congo and Central African Republic. There are about 200 LRA fighters still active in the jungle, according to Ugandan military estimates. Agger, the Enough Project researcher, put the current number of LRA fighters at no more than 500. Amid an intensified manhunt, the LRA these days is no longer capable of mounting large-scale attacks that once could send whole villages fleeing in terror. Ugandan officials last month reported that Okot Odhiambo — a fugitive rebel who was the LRA's No.2 commander behind Kony — likely died of wounds he received late last year in an attack by African Union forces in Central African Republic.
Watchdog groups say the LRA has shown a capacity to regroup over the years, as well as to take advantage of the region's porous borders to elude capture. Kony himself is believed to be hiding in the border region between Central African Republic and Sudan's South Darfur region, according to Agger and the Ugandan military.
The anti-Kony forces are not authorized to enter Sudanese territory, the reason some analysts believe Kony escapes to a Sudan-controlled enclave called Kafia Kingi whenever he is cornered by his pursuers.