Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 14, the Ugandan army launched an attack on leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Congo, targeting its commander, Joseph Kony.

Kony's epic career of murder has few equals. As both a rebel and a cult leader in northern Uganda, he led an army of stolen children and sex slaves, sometimes forcing his captives to engage in cannibalism and the murder of neighbors to sever ties of community and humanity. The LRA has been known to line roads with the decapitated heads of enemies. Terror and conflict displaced millions of Ugandans into camps. When Kony lost his havens in that country, he fled into the chaotic vastness of Congo, using the cover of peace negotiations to raise another force of terrorists and child soldiers.

For years, Uganda planned a complex military operation against the LRA in Congo. It would start with bombing runs by MiG fighters, then a helicopter assault, then the deployment of commandos, then the advance of two army brigades, forward deployed along the southern Sudanese border. Some units would liberate a nearby camp where families of LRA soldiers -- about 300 women and children -- were kept as hostages to prevent defections. Troops from Congo and southern Sudan would block escape routes.

But Uganda's troop deployments were delayed. Suddenly word arrived that Kony, fearing attack, would soon hold a meeting of LRA leaders, and order them to flee into the bush. Uganda decided to move ahead.

On the day of the attack last month, fog prevented the MiGs from flying. Instead, two helicopters went in first. The pilots reported seeing a group of LRA leaders, sitting in a circle of white chairs in a clearing. Scattered by the attack, the leaders attempted to escape toward a bridge -- where two more Ugandan helicopters opened fire.

Because of poor flying conditions, Ugandan commandos did not arrive at the site until 48 hours later. At first, they found nothing -- the LRA had carefully cleaned up evidence of the strike. But the Ugandans eventually found newly dug graves. Two defectors who had witnessed the attack said that some people had been shot, but claimed no knowledge of what happened to Kony. It is assumed that he survived, though he may be injured.

Ugandan forces are now pursuing scattered LRA units back into the empty vastness of Garamba National Park. But, as one Bush administration observer notes, "It is easier to run than to track."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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