A senior official in the Ugandan army has refuted claims that a number of rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA) fighters have offered to surrender following clashes with the Uganda's People's Defence Forces (UPDF) inside southern Sudan.
Shaban Bantariza, UPDF Director for Information and Public Relations, told IRIN on Monday that LRA rebels had neither surrendered nor had they been surrounded by the Ugandan army, as had been reported in the local media.
Radio Uganda reported on Thursday 23 May that a "sizeable number" of LRA fighters, including two senior officers, who were under siege by the UPDF, had written to the army seeking to surrender. UPDF fourth divisional commander Francis Okello was said to have "welcomed the idea", and had assured the group that they would be offered an amnesty, the report added.
"There was no such thing as a surrender. Some people were just trying to provoke the situation to see what the government was going to say," Bantariza added.
An agreement by the Ugandan and Sudanese governments in March has given the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) authorisation to pursue the LRA inside Sudanese territory. Previously supported by Sudan, in retaliation for Uganda's support for the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the LRA has fought the Uganda government since the late 1980s, from bases in southern Sudan.
The low-intensity war has resulted in severe humanitarian consequences in northern Uganda, where the LRA has abducted about 12,000 children and caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, according to humanitarian sources.
Recent comments attributed by the Ugandan media to Acting UPDF commander James Kazini suggested that it had dislodged LRA fighters and their leader, Joseph Kony, from camps near the southern Sudanese town of Juba, and had surrounded them at the Imatong Mountains in the southeast of the country, where the groups had fled with insufficient supplies.
Kazini said this was "definitely the last phase" of the Ugandan army operation, for which it has received permission from the Sudanese government, according to Ugandan government-owned New Vision newspaper on 23 May.
"Kony will either be killed or die of hunger, or surrender, within the next 45 days," it quoted Kazini as saying. "His ammunition and food supplies are running out, and this has affected the morale of his fighters."
However, Bantariza said it the Ugandan army had not, and could not, surround the LRA forces, who were hiding in little groups. "You can't surround people in the mountains: they are not one group, they have been scattered," he added.
He did express the hope that the campaign against LRA was nearing its end, on the basis that the insurgents were "getting tired of running".
"Because they are tired of running all the time, they are beginning to settle down and fight us," he said on Monday. "We should have some positive results to give you [the media] soon."
Bantariza confirmed the extension of the anti-LRA military offensive inside Sudan until the end of June, following the expiry of the due date on 19 May.
This was the second extension of the deadline for the operation since Sudan allowed the UPDF onto sovereign territory (some of it effectively controlled by the SPLM/A), to pursue and fight the LRA, which it had previously backed with finance, arms and logistical support.
Kampala has asserted that the terms and duration of the anti-LRA campaign can be altered by an agreement of the Ugandan and Sudanese defence ministers to amend the March protocol which allowed for it.
The BBC reported on 19 May that the authorities in Khartoum had indicated their intention to have Sudanese forces join in the anti-LRA offensive for the first time, following claims that Sudanese villagers had been killed and displaced in LRA attacks.
In the past month, church groups in southern Sudan have spoken a number of LRA attacks - though not independently verified - in which hundreds of people are believed to have been killed.
Although the Ugandan government has said it hopes to rescue thousands of LRA abductees in the southern Sudan operation, dubbed "Operation Iron Fist", its use of heavy weaponry - including tanks and artillery - has raised alarm among human rights activists.
"It is difficult to see how military confrontation will avoid tragically high casualties," the UK-based organisation African Rights stated in a report earlier this month. The UPDF "seems to have invested little by way of preparations to achieve its tactically complex objective" of securing the release of abductees, it added.
"As the name of the operation was intended to signal, the government means to deal firmly with the LRA," according to the organisation, which argued that this "belligerent tone" and the deployment of heavy arms in the operation belied Kampala's argument that the objective was to lead captives to safety. It expressed concern at the dearth of rescued abductees so far.
Entitled, "Operation Iron Fist: What Price for Peace in Northern Uganda?", the report said the Ugandan government's effort, based on "pulling a spectacular finish" to the long LRA insurgency in the north, had not gone according to plan so far, with grave consequences for the prospects of peace in the region.
"To date, the government has not presented convincing arguments as to how this [release of captives] will be achieved without inflicting serious casualties on the captives and without destroying the hard work which the Acholi community... has invested in peace," it stated.
The preparations for the mission appear to have been rushed, it said, adding that, even from a military perspective, the campaign could hardly be described as a success so far.
Sam Tindifa, head of the Human Rights and Peace Centre in Makerere University, Kampala, told IRIN on Monday that he, too, was unconvinced by the army's claims of success.
"Much as they claim to have smoked the rebels out of their cans, there is really not much evidence to show us that much is happening. For Kazini to threaten to resign if he fails, we have been hearing that for the last 10 years," Tindifa said.
"These people [in the army] love to make propaganda. If they captured guns and heavy military equipment as they claim, we could have seen them in the newspapers," he added.
Bantariza said the UPDF was not keen on releasing "too much" information on the anti-LRA campaign, since media coverage was already undermining certain aspects of the operation.
"We have decided we have been conducting our operation through the pres for too long. We have decided we will give information if and when it is very necessary," he told IRIN on Monday.
Tindifa argued that Uganda and Sudan would have been better pursuing a political approach to resolving the LRA rebellion.
"This [Operation Iron Fist] was a not a worthwhile process," he said. "They should have pursued a political solution. SPLA would have been part of the solution," he added.
Finding a permanent solution to the LRA insurgency must involve "improved relations with Sudan, raising the standard of life of ordinary people in the north [of Uganda] and a greater sense of political inclusion... a stake in the national economy and political system," according to African Rights.
"No quick-fix military action against the LRA can resolve these issues," it added. Rather, killing Acholi children abducted by the LRA would simply sharpen Acholi grievances "and stoke future strife" in northern Uganda.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions