KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — The foot soldiers searching the deep jungles on the hunt for African warlord Joseph Kony were convinced they had cornered his deputy as they exchanged fire with a band of Lord's Resistance Army rebels.
When the shooting subsided the soldiers found a pair of lifeless rebels and two children deserted by insurgents. But the deputy — Dominic Ongwen, the subject of an international arrest warrant — had escaped, leaving his pursuers to rue a missed opportunity.
The shoot-out last August in the Central African Republic highlighted the limitations of African efforts to eliminate the leadership of the LRA, a brutal gang of jungle militiamen with no real political aim except violence and destruction.
Roughly one year after 100 U.S. special forces troops arrived in four Central Africa nations to advise African soldiers in their pursuit, Kony is still on the run and his exact whereabouts unknown. Ugandan officials now say he is hiding in a place called Kafia Kingi, along the volatile Sudan-South Sudan border.
When President Barack Obama announced in October 2011 that he was sending in the forces, American policy makers and Africa experts warned that even with the extra U.S. assistance, the hunt for a killer in an expansive jungle the size of France would be difficult. The warnings have proved to be true.
Despite a spike in LRA defections and statements by the State Department that significant progress has been made, those most interested in the Kony hunt are calling for even greater U.S. involvement.
Kasper Agger, a researcher with the U.S.-based anti-genocide group the Enough Project, said in a recent report that U.S. forces must "play a more operational role," in the hunt. American forces now don't participate in the physical hunts and engage in combat only in cases of self-defense.
Agger said the mission to catch LRA leaders is impossible without more troops on the ground and greater investment in human and aerial intelligence.
Ugandan officials want America to provide more advanced technology that might make it possible to map LRA movements. Military spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye praised the U.S. for supplying helicopters and its troops for helping to drive defections from the LRA, but he asserted that "they need to invest more in technology."
Isolating LRA rebels has proved difficult in a jungle teeming with cattle keepers, illegal hunters, as well as other militias that have nothing to do with the LRA, Kulayigye said.
"How do you tell that these are the LRA and these are civilians looking after their cattle? It's a challenge," Kulayigye said.
Ongwen, the Kony deputy who avoided capture, is believed to have sneaked into Congo. Okot Odhiambo, another top Kony lieutenant, is hiding in the Central African Republic, according to Kulayigye. The three, including Kony, are wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed over two decades in Uganda and later in South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic, the four countries where U.S. forces have been deployed.
At the peak of its powers the LRA was a cruel group whose ragtag fighters razed villages, raped women and amputated limbs. In Uganda, where the LRA was born in the 1980s as a popular uprising against President Yoweri Museveni, the insurgency killed hundreds of people and sent millions fleeing into filthy camps for the internally displaced.
The LRA is especially notorious for recruiting boys to fight and taking girls as sex slaves, the reason U.S. charity Invisible Children started a successful online video campaign early this year to raise global awareness of the rebels' crimes.
This year alone the LRA killed 39 civilians in Congo and the Central African Republic, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report this month. Another 193 people were abducted in both countries, Ban's report to the U.N. Security Council said.
The African Union this year endorsed the creation of a force to hunt down LRA leaders, with all LRA-affected countries expected to contribute toward the envisaged force of 5,000 soldiers. But several months later, only about 2,500 troops, the bulk Ugandan and a few hundred soldiers from South Sudan and the Central African Republic, have materialized for the mission. Congo is yet to make a contribution.
The U.S. has spent $30 million every year since 2008 on the LRA mission, including on supplies such as fuel for helicopters, according to Daniel Travis, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Uganda.
Hilary Renner, the spokeswoman for the State Department's Africa bureau, cited the capture in May of Caesar Acellam, a top LRA strategist, as well as the near-capture of Ongwen as examples of "significant progress" made in efforts to weaken the LRA.
"Defections from the LRA's ranks have significantly increased over recent months," Renner said. "Since Acellam's capture several mid-level officers have left the group. We are working with the regional forces and non-governmental organizations to airdrop more leaflets, expand radio broadcasts, and establish safe reporting sites to encourage the remaining LRA to peacefully surrender from the group."
Angelo Izama, an analyst who runs a Kampala-based security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote, said the LRA would be even weaker today if countries like Congo and the Central African Republic became as committed as the Ugandans are to fighting the rebels.
"The Americans could open a new front with the Central African Republic authorities and pursue Kony with more flexibility from that side," Izama said.
It remains unclear how long the U.S. troops will stay in Africa, especially if the LRA leaders continue to remain elusive. Renner said U.S. officials continue to talk with their African partners to ensure the American presence is having its intended security effect.
Ugandan military officials insist the LRA — even if its top leaders remain free — is degraded and fading fast, with its fighters — about 200 combatants — constantly moving to avoid detection and struggling for food.
"Kony has been denied the freedom to abduct at will," Kulayigye said. "He can't increase his numbers."