NAIROBI – Ugandan and American troops have suspended their joint hunt for war crimes suspect Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, delivering a major setback to efforts to capture a notorious warlord accused of abducting tens of thousands of children.
The Ugandan military and the U.S. State Department separately announced Wednesday that they had temporarily halted the search because of political turmoil in the Central African Republic, where Kony and his deputies are thought to be hiding.
Rebel groups unaffiliated with Kony seized power in the Central African Republic last week, forcing President Francois Bozize — who had been friendly with Washington — to flee the country.
Ugandan Army spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye said the hunt for Kony would remain on hold “until further notice” because rebel leaders in the Central African Republic were refusing to cooperate with Ugandan troops stationed in the country.
Shortly afterward, State Department officials in Washington said the U.S. military would likewise “pause” its operations in the Central African Republic.
A Pentagon spokesman said that about 40 U.S. Special Forces troops are deployed in the country, where they are advising and training about 3,000 African troops — mainly Ugandans — looking for Kony in the jungle.
U.S. President Barack Obama deployed approximately 100 U.S. Special Forces troops to Africa in October 2011 to coordinate a regional effort to track Kony, a brutal and messianic Ugandan guerrilla leader who has been on the run for a quarter-century.
The U.S. military said it will not withdraw its troops from the Central African Republic for now in hopes that a political solution can be reached soon so the search for Kony can resume. Meanwhile, the 40 U.S. Special Forces troops will remain at two camps deep in the bush, near the towns of Obo and Djema.
The rest of the 60 U.S. troops are stationed in Uganda, South Sudan and Congo, where they will continue normal operations, said Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman.
Kony and most of his deputies are thought to be hiding in the Central African Republic, but they regularly cross borders and are well-practiced at disappearing into the bush. They long ago stopped using radios and cellphones to avoid leaving an electronic trail, frustrating U.S. efforts to track them with satellites and surveillance aircraft.
The suspension of the search overshadowed a previously planned announcement Wednesday by the State Department to offer $5 million in rewards for information leading to the arrest of Kony or two other LRA leaders, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen.
Donald Yamamoto, the State Department’s acting top diplomat for African affairs, said the U.S. government “remains very committed” to defeating the LRA. “Even though we’ve taken a pause because of the developments” in the Central African Republic, he said, “we’re going to use all facilities and all technology at our hands to try to find and locate Kony and his crew.”
Kony created the Lord’s Resistance Army in the 1980s to overthrow Uganda’s government. The militia left Uganda several years ago but continued to terrorize villagers in central Africa across a swath of terrain the size of California, kidnapping children and transforming them into killers and sex slaves.
Over the past two years, the militia has significantly weakened, numbering no more than a few hundred fighters, according to U.N. officials and analysts. High-profile defections have fragmented the group, which now stages assaults mostly for food and supplies.