By Richard Lough
OBO, Central African Republic (Reuters) - In a bare concrete room in a far-flung corner of Central African Republic, U.S. special forces and Ugandan soldiers map out the hunt for one of Africa's most wanted rebel leaders hiding in an area the size of California.
The building belonged to the town of Obo's doctor until he was murdered last year by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) while transporting medicines by road. Now it serves as an operational centre in one of America's latest military ventures in Africa.
The mission's goal is clear.
"(The) focus is the removal of Joseph Kony and senior Lord's Resistance Army leadership from the battlefield," said Captain Ken Wright, a navy SEAL in command of the roughly 100-strong force which deployed in October.
Kony has evaded the region's militaries for nearly three decades, kidnapping tens of thousands of children to fill his militia's ranks and serve as sex slaves as he moves through the bush. Thousands more have died in the wake of his brutal army.
The deployment of elite American forces to help track Kony and his senior commanders in the dense equatorial jungle across a region that spans several countries has raised hopes the sadistic warlord's days are numbered.
The troops are armed but do not patrol the surrounding forests and are allowed to engage the LRA only in self-defense.
Instead, their focus is on improving intelligence on LRA positions gathered both electronically and from tip-offs.
By meshing stories from hunters and nomadic cattle herders of encounters with the rebels together with sophisticated surveillance imagery, allied forces chart suspected rebel activity and coordinate the regional armies' pursuit of Kony.
"You look at patterns to see where LRA might be moving, historic areas where they might operate, so we can predict where they're going and try and head them off and most effectively use the forces on the ground," Captain Gregory, a 29-year-old Texan hidden behind sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat told Reuters.
For many of the U.S. troops who have recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq, the humid jungles of central Africa are unfamiliar territory.
Their deployment raised expectations locally that U.S. drones would be unearthing Kony. They are not, and this hostile environment is throwing up unforeseen challenges.
"Some of the gear we have here is affected by the vegetation ... and acts differently from in the desert. "Vegetation absorbs signals and sounds," said Gregory.
INTERNATIONAL BAD GUY
Kony, a self-styled mystic leader who at one time was bent on ruling Uganda by the ten commandments, fled his native northern Uganda in 2005, roaming first the lawless expanses of South Sudan and then the isolated northeastern tip of Congo.
In December 2008, after last-ditch peace talks failed, Ugandan paratroopers and fighter jets struck the LRA's Congo hideouts. Kony slipped through the net, raising suspicions he had been tipped off. He and many of his combatants moved north into CAR.
Kony was thrust back into the spotlight earlier this year when a video, "Kony 2012", highlighting the chilling mutilations, rapes and murders carried out by his spell-bound fighters went viral on the Internet.
Bruce Wharton, deputy assistant secretary in the Department of State's Africa bureau said the deployment of special forces was in part a response to legislation in 2010 calling on the Obama administration to do more to tackle Kony.
"I think Kony, for lack of an ideology, for lack of a political agenda, for lack of an intellectually identifiable cause, and for the brutality with which he operates, is at the top of the list of international bad guys," Wharton said.
Asked whether hunting Kony offered a convenient way of expanding the U.S. military footprint in Africa, Wharton told Reuters: "I absolutely think that as soon as this mission is accomplished the roughly 100 troops will go away."
Facing war crimes charges, Kony has transformed himself from a one-time altar boy to a master of jungle survival and evasion. His fighters have become increasingly savvy in concealing their movements, wading through crocodile-infested rivers and walking backwards and in loops to disguise their tracks.
The vicious and often drugged rebels first struck Obo in the early hours of March 6, 2009. They targeted the town's Catholic mission, abducting 76 people.
"We were told they were coming but we didn't believe they would attack the town," said Obo resident Ricardo Dimanche who runs a community radio project urging LRA fighters to give up their weapons.
"The next year they started attacking the small villages around us. Displaced people started flooding in," said Dimanche.
Underscoring the challenge facing the American and regional troops, the LRA launched almost as many attacks in the first three months of this year in CAR as in all of last year, according to U.N. data.
"Nobody has peace of mind now," said Dimanche.
U.S. military officials are reluctant to bet on if and when they might snare Kony.
"The global effort to try to find Osama bin Laden took 10 years with an extraordinary level of effort ... the highest priority for the international intelligence community, and it still took 10 years to find him," General Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) told a media briefing in Germany ahead of the tightly controlled trip.
"So this is a tough mission."