KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda's military said it believes a senior rebel commander with the infamous Lord's Resistance Army was killed last year in Central African Republic following an attack by African Union forces, inflicting a serious setback to the rebel group that is said to be in decline amid an international hunt for its leader, Joseph Kony.
Rebel commander Okot Odhiambo —who was the LRA's No.2 commander behind Kony — likely died of his wounds after an attack in October near the town of Djema, one of at least two bases used by African forces in Central African Republic, Ugandan military spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said Monday.
Ankunda said the accounts of LRA defectors provide "a corroborating picture" of Odhiambo's death even though his body hasn't been found. One LRA defector said he saw a badly wounded Odhiambo being carried away by fighters following the attack, and another defector said the commander was missing at a top LRA meeting where he was expected late last year, according to Ankunda.
"There is some truth to it," he said, referring to Odhiambo's death.
The news was hailed in Washington.
"The death of Odhiambo would be a historic blow to the LRA's command structure. It is clear that, despite the regional challenges, the AU Regional Task Force continues to make great strides toward ending the LRA threat," said State Department spokesman William Stevens. He congratulated the Ugandan-led African Union troops "on their continued success in pursuing the LRA's remaining leaders and promoting defections. We believe it is critical that pressure continue to be put on the LRA to prevent it from regrouping."
The United States has about 100 military advisers helping the African Union force of about 3,000 troops from Uganda, South Sudan and Congo to hunt down the LRA.
Odhiambo's death, if confirmed, would be "a huge blow" to the LRA, whose leaders are constantly trying to elude capture in the jungles of central Africa, said Ben Keesey, the head of the LRA watchdog group Invisible Children. Kony himself is believed to be hiding in Central African Republic, which has been largely lawless over the past year amid sectarian violence in which up to 1 million people have been displaced.
Odhiambo was one of five LRA commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 over atrocities committed in a rebellion that started in Uganda in the 1980s before spreading to some parts of central Africa. In the past the rebels have operated bases in South Sudan and Congo, taking advantage of the region's porous borders to elude their hunters.
Odhiambo was a member of the "control altar" of the LRA, a small group of Ugandan-born rebel commanders who planned and implemented the LRA's many atrocities, according to the watchdog group Enough Project. His presumed death means only two of those indicted by the ICC —including Kony— remain at large.
In a rebel group known for savagery that sometimes included chopping off the limbs of victims, Odhiambo stood out for his alleged ruthlessness. His ICC arrest warrant cited one account that described the rebel commander as "the one who killed the most," and he was wanted on multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
At the peak of its military power, the LRA was notorious for recruiting boys as fighters and forcing girls to become sex slaves. Now, amid rising defections and international military pressure, the group is said to be vastly diminished and incapable of mounting large-scale attacks on civilians. Ugandan military officials believe that now the LRA forces don't exceed 500.