The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a cultish Ugandan rebel group known for abducting and enslaving teenagers, appears determined to expand its operations into a third country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
More than 350 rebels crossed into the country's northeast last month from Sudan for the first time in the 19-year conflict. The opening of a new front follows a recent rise in rebel attacks after 10 months of relative quiet, and precedes expected indictments of rebel leaders by the International Criminal Court.
Despite losing key backing from the Sudanese government in the past year, the LRA has managed to continue its fight by taking advantage of distrust between neighboring governments and their weak control over war-torn areas. Observers say the rebel expansion into Congo requires stepped up regional cooperation and military force to prevent any further instability in this volatile corner of Africa.
"The LRA's opening of a potential new front in DRC will further destabilize extremely tense regional relations unless [UN forces] and the Congolese Army move quickly to address this threat," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank in Brussels. "The end [of the LRA insurgency] is within sight, but will require much more coordinated action by regional governments, the UN peacekeepers in Congo and Sudan, and other external actors led by the US."
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is worried enough about the rebels that he threatened to invade the Congo if the government in Kinshasa and the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) did not move to stop the LRA incursion. "In effect, Congo is giving bases to terrorists," he said.
Ugandan forces have invaded Congo two previous times in the past decade as part of the so-called "world war" that ripped apart central Africa. "This is yet another foreign armed group entering the Congo ... and this is the pretext used by neighboring countries to invade the DRC," says a UN official.
To head off the possibility of a third invasion, the UN has airlifted hundreds of commandos to the town of Aba in northeastern Congo while supplying an attack helicopter to Congolese ground troops searching Garamba National Park where the rebels, led by the LRA's deputy leader Vincent Otti, are believed to be operating.
For now, the Ugandan government has expressed confidence that the MONUC and Congolese troops will be able to flush out the LRA for them. However, at least one Ugandan opposition member of Parliament says he doubts those forces will succeed in tackling the combat-hardened rebels.
"The moment [MONUC forces] get 20, 30 coffins from the battlefield, I think countries will want to withdraw their troops," says Reagan Okumu, an MP from war-affected northern Uganda.
Nor does he believe Congo is competent enough to protect its own sovereignty because of the alphabet soup of militias, beyond the LRA, who are concentrated in the country's vast eastern region. The MONUC has come under past criticism for its weak efforts to disarm these militias, though the UN force has flexed more muscle recently. The militias in eastern Congo had until Sept. 30 to disarm or surrender peacefully, but some failed to accept that deadline.
Meanwhile, the LRA continues to menace northern Uganda, killing five people this past week in a daylight ambush near the southern Sudanese border.
Ugandan Army spokesman Lt. Col. Shaban Bantariza says that LRA leader Joseph Kony has now moved above Uganda's "red line" in southern Sudan, the Juba-Torit road, where Ugandan forces are not allowed to chase him.
"He's actually on leave, having free time. Nobody's attacking him," says Colonel Bantariza. "Nobody's asking him to leave."
However, Ugandan officials will soon meet with their Sudanese and southern Sudanese counterparts to formulate a plan as to how to flush out Mr. Kony and his forces, according to Bantariza. And Uganda has reinforced its troops near the Congolese border in its West Nile region.
As for the new front in the Congo, Ugandan President Museveni suggested several solutions to the problem. One is to allow Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo to launch joint antirebel attacks. He has also floated the possibility of deployments from the African Union or a Western nation such as Britain or France to repel the rebels.
Even though he holds out little hope that MONUC and Congo forces alone can handle the problem, Mr. Okumu doesn't want to see an invasion by the Ugandan Army.
"It would be a disaster, an invasion without cooperation," he says.