UPDATE: AFP is reporting this morning an attack by the LRA on the gold mining town of Nzako in the Central African Republic on Sunday, March 13. At least six people were reported killed, and between 30 and 100 abducted.
Although northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo is no stranger to violence, a recent spike in civilian attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, has raised international concern.
During a briefing earlier this month, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, expressed alarm about the “new upsurge in violence against civilians” by the LRA in northeastern Congo.” UNHCR reported that 52 LRA raids had taken place in Orientale province since the beginning of the year. These attacks have resulted in 35 deaths, 104 abductions, and the displacement of 17,000 people.
Since the briefing, the LRA has continued attacks in the area, clashing with the Congolese army as recently as March 10, according to Radio Okapi.
UNHCR also noted that the LRA appears to be shifting away from targeting civilians in remote areas, to attacking more heavily populated locations in northeastern Congo.
This change in LRA tactics has subsequently followed the return of LRA leader Joseph Kony to Congo. Kony allegedly crossed into the country through northern Ango territory in the Bas Uélé district in late 2010 or early 2011 with his group of more than 100, the majority of which are fighters. According to an Enough source, they have since moved into Haut Uélé and possibly joined with other LRA groups in the area. The majority of LRA fighters—as many as 250 to 300—are reportedly now in Congo. Some fighters remain in the Central African Republic and at least one group operates between Sudan and Congo.
This concentration of LRA leadership and forces in Congo is a worrying development, and could potentially indicate that the LRA is attempting to regroup there. The increased presence of the LRA in Congo also helps to explain the spike in violence and abductions.
Responding to recent attacks, the U.N. stabilization mission in Congo, MONUSCO, deployed about 100 special forces in the area of Bamangana, which was the scene of a gruesome LRA attack in late February that left eight people dead and 30 abducted. The main objective of the deployment is to protect civilians and to reinforce the position of the Congolese Army, or FARDC, in the area. According to Radio Okapi, MONUSCO and FARDC are planning or have begun to track down LRA fighters. Although this MONUSCO deployment is applauded, it is too little too late, and it highlights the problem that much of the remote areas in which the LRA operates remain unprotected by regional forces and peacekeeping troops.
In addition, the Ugandan army has also withdrawn troops from LRA-affected areas, including Congo, in light of the recent elections in Uganda and its commitment to the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM. This has resulted in a marked reduction in the effectiveness of the campaign against the LRA. No major LRA commanders have been captured or killed since December 2009, when Bok Abudema, who was thought to be a close military advisor to Kony, was killed in the Central African Republic.
There are also major disputes between the Ugandan and Congolese armies, with Congolese commanders accusing the Ugandan army of trying to get rich from Congo’s natural resources. Congolese officers and officials claim the LRA is not causing violence in Haut Uélé, but rather that it is bandits who are responsible.
The latest civilian attacks, coupled with these concerning developments, reinforce the need for a robust and coordinated approach to end the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability.
Recent LRA attacks reported in northeastern Congo:
February 11 – The LRA launched an attack on Faradje territory, prompting several aid agencies and staff to evacuate the area.
February 21 – A truck carrying relief supplies and food for the NGO Solidarités was attacked near Garamba National Park.
February 24 – Civilian attack in the town of Bamangana. Eight people were reportedly killed and 30 abducted. According to UNHCR, no house was spared.
February 24-25 – Civilian attack at Napakara village. According to Radio Okapi, approximately 10 people were killed, including six FARDC soldiers. Many residents were displaced.
March 4 – FARDC and the LRA clashed near Dungu. Three people were reported killed, and one woman seriously injured.
March 6 – The LRA attacked a convoy of six trucks containing 240 tons of food from the World Food Program, near Banda, in the Bas Uélé district. The driver, who reported the incident, does not know what happened to the 11 people who had been traveling with him.
March 10 – The LRA and FARDC clashed in Banda, resulting in 8 deaths (3 Congolese soldiers and 5 LRA), according to Radio Okapi, quoting military sources. The Congolese army said that 21 abductees were freed during the operation.
Photo: LRA fighters (AP)