Anti-government rebels in Uganda suffered a setback on Tuesday when a senior commander whom the Ugandan military described as the "heart and spirit" of the rebellion ravaging the north of the country was captured in the northern district of Gulu.
Seventy-year-old "Brigadier" Kenneth Banya, who, army spokesman Maj Shaban Bantariza said, was the most senior adviser to Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, was captured following a battle at Okidi, along the River Unyama in Gulu District. "He has been the heart and spirit of the rebellion. He is the main military and technical brain behind the rebel movement. He has been attached to Kony in Sudan," Bantariza told IRIN.
He said five LRA fighters were killed during Banya's capture and another five taken prisoner as infantry supported by a helicopter engaged his group of about 135 fighters, who then scattered.
Banya is a former Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) major. He used to be President Yoweri Museveni's escort while the latter was a minister in the government that followed the ouster of former dictator Idi Amin in 1979. He is the first high-profile capture for the army since the rebellion started some 18 years ago.
Banya was a Soviet-trained MIG-21 fighter and MI-17 helicopter pilot who served in Idi Amin's army before joining the UNLA under former President Milton Obote.
According to reports, the military paraded the captured top rebel before a visiting United States military delegation that was in northern Uganda on Wednesday to "assess the security situation and review the impact of the little US military assistance for protecting the populations under threat of LRA".
Banya narrated his history to the delegation: "I was studying industrial chemistry in 1970 when I was recruited in the air force as a cadet. I was sent to Entebbe for a six-month training, then I was sent to the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] for the training that took me seven years. I returned to Uganda, but the conditions at that time were not conducive, so I ran away to Tanzania. I did further training at Monduli and Morogoro.
"I met President Museveni in 1977/79. I escorted him when he was the minister of defence. He is a very nice man, very frank, very considerate and very forgiving," reporters who attended the Gulu encounter quoted Banya as telling the Americans.
The US military delegation, which is headed by the deputy commander of the Germany-based US European Command, Gen Charles Wald, visited children traumatised by the conflict who had earlier been abducted, were rescued or escaped from captivity, and were undergoing counselling at a centre run by World Vision in Gulu. The delegation later met President Museveni in the capital, Kampala, and discussed peace in the region and other issues with him.
Bantariza emphasised the significance of the capture, saying that following Banya's apprehension, a number of rebel commanders had surrendered, including another veteran, "Major" Isiah Luwum, who, the army spokesman said, was one of those who had joined the rebel force in its early days. Two other commanders with the rank of "captain" had also followed Luwum with a total of 32 fighters and a quantity of arms and ammunition.
In a related development, a group of LRA late on Tuesday overran an army detachment along the border with Sudan, killing two members of a local militia, taking their weapons, and setting ablaze the entire encampment. Bantariza confirmed the killing and the raid, which took place at Aweeno-Olwiyo, some 70 km north of Kitgum town.
"The rest of the militias had gone to the market, as this was a market day. So these rebels attacked and overran the camp, killing the two and taking their guns, but we are still pursuing them," Bantariza said.