Brutal retreat of LRA rebels in Congo
The joint mission to finish off the notorious Lord's Resistance Army has led to more than 900 deaths and displaced more than 1,330 civilians since it began nearly two months ago.
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The operation, codenamed Lightning Thunder, was launched after Kony failed to show up to sign a comprehensive peace agreement with the Ugandan government in late November.Skip to next paragraph
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It was the 13th time in two years that Kony had stayed home. A key sticking point was the fate of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against Kony and two of his surviving lieutenants. Reports in the US-media suggest that President Bush gave his personal go-ahead for American officials to help with planning, intelligence and fuel for the operation to capture or kill Kony.
A difficult mission
This time, due to a combination of ill-planning and poor coordination between the various forces involved, the operation got off to wobbly start.
First, bad weather prevented the Ugandans from sending in their aging MIG-21 fighter jets to attack the LRA camps.
Instead, after a delay of four hours, cumbersome attack helicopters were dispatched, the noise of their engines giving the LRA vital time to flee.
It then took another two days for the first ground troops to arrive.
Given the LRA's track record of violent retribution against innocent civilians, the bloody and coordinated attacks that followed were devastatingly predictable.
LRA killing as they flee villages
Justin-Yves Rabbi was working in the fields outside the LRA camp the morning the Ugandan missiles hit. Ten months earlier, Rabbi and his two sisters were abducted from their home in Central African Republic hundreds of kilometres to the north.
A trained nurse, Rabbi's ability to save LRA lives meant that his was spared and he was put to work as an assistant to Kony's personal doctor.
His younger sister, aged 17, was taken by Kony as one of his 50 wives.
A month before the attacks, she gave birth to a son.
Vitally, Rabbi said, the first wave of attacks failed to capture or kill Kony.
Although the aerial bombardment came as a surprise, the bombs fell off target and very few fighters were injured. After the bombardment, the LRA had ample time to regroup and split up. Rabbi was among a group of 80 abductees and 150 fighters that headed south-west under the command of a senior LRA leader.
The commanders remained in contact with Kony via satellite phones.
What happened next was carefully directed by the LRA leadership.
"It was then that the order came to start killing everyone. After the attacks, they declared total war against the population," Rabbi said.
As they headed off into the bush, the group of fighters Rabbi was with would splinter to attack villages along its path.
Machetes and clubs were used to save on the dwindling supplies of ammunition.
Over Christmas, hundreds of people were massacred as they gathered to celebrate. In at least two villages, churches were set alight with scores of people still inside. After another month of wandering, Rabbi managed to escape when the group he was with broke up after encountering a Congolese army patrol.
How to protect civilians
Whatever the success or otherwise of the joint military operation, the protection of civilians in the region appears to have been only a distant afterthought.
Although the Congolese Army is now deployed in many of the hotspots, they arrived only in time to bury the victims of the first wave of LRA attacks. Six weeks on, if there is a frontline in the LRA's war against the people of north-east Congo, then the town of Ngilima is on it.
Over the past few weeks, a local health worker says the town's population has swelled from 11,000 to around 30,000 as people have flooded in from villages being attacked nearby.