Women and children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army guerrilla group are suffering from hunger because the wanted band of fighters has stopped stealing food from villages to avoid being detected by a military manhunt, Ugandan military officials said Monday.
Col. Joseph Balikkudembe said women and children have died from hunger while in the custody of the LRA, though he did not provide any death tolls. He said that pregnant women and children under 10 were suffering the most.
"The majority of the abductees are dying due to lack of food," he told The Associated Press by email from the Central African Republic, where he is helping lead the manhunt for LRA fighters and their leader, Joseph Kony.
Balikkudembe said that Kony has ordered his men to stop raiding communities for food, apparently to avoid being detected.
"They are feeding on wild yams commonly known as abato," he said. "The yams are scarce, and they (rebels) are always on the run."
Balikkudembe said his soldiers rescued a woman who had just given birth when Ugandan forces attacked a rebel outfit led by Okot Odhiambo, one of Kony's top lieutenants.
Kony, whose army abducts children and takes women as sex slaves, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during a decades-long insurgency against Uganda's government. The group has been blamed for the murder of thousands of civilians in four countries, and the U.S. classifies it as a terrorist organization.
Last October President Barack Obama sent about 100 combat-ready U.S. forces to help regional governments capture or kill Kony and his top lieutenants. The decision to deploy was based on legislation called the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, passed by Congress in 2010.
Kony's militia has split into groups of a few fighters, and analysts say he is not able to assert his authority on all the units. To avoid detection, Kony uses messengers to communicate his commands, Ugandan army officials say.
The itinerant nature of Kony's forces means that they are unable to grow food crops, as they once did in southern Sudan, or even to access old provisions. LRA fighters now operate in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo.
"We are aware that Kony has a problem of food that is very, very serious," said Col. Felix Kulayigye, the spokesman for Uganda's military. "We have heard that a small group of LRA has entered the DRC (Congo) from the Central African Republic. It's a small group of 50 to 60."
At least five civilians were killed and 20 abducted in a rash of LRA attacks in the Central African Republic this year, according to a website called the LRA Crisis Tracker run by the aid groups Invisible Children and Resolve. The site also reported that suspected LRA fighters stole food and medicine from a health care center in Congo last week.
The attacks are a constant threat to villagers in the region. On Feb. 6 seven suspected LRA fighters abducted a hunter near Ngilima, Congo. Two days earlier in Aligi, Congo six suspected LRA _ four men with guns and two women with machetes and sticks _ looted three households and abducted several people. Presumed LRA fighters abducted six children in Mangwa, Congo on Jan. 22, according to the site.
Kony is believed to be somewhere in the Central African Republic, but his precise location is not known. The Ugandan military estimates that Kony has between 150 and 200 fighters, but many more women and children are believed to move with the rebels.
Flushed out of Ugandan territory by 2006, Kony and his army of ragtag fighters have navigated the region's porous borders, escaping to South Sudan or seeking refuge in the dense jungles of eastern Congo, where in December 2008 an aerial assault aided by American surveillance failed to kill Kony.
The rebel leader has been highly mobile after the attack, which followed a failed peace process mediated by South Sudan.
The U.S.-based advocacy group Enough Project said in a report this month that the deployment of U.S. forces is not be enough to catch Kony. Sasha Lezhnev, the report's author, warned that the mission will probably fail "unless U.S. military advisers are backed by strong military support and a new defection strategy."
"A small investment in transport helicopters and intelligence support would go a very long way. President Obama should also call on African allies to supply additional special forces troops to help locate Joseph Kony," the report said.
Uganda has thousands of troops based in Obo, a town in southeast Central African Republic where in December they were joined by American advisers. The Ugandan military has declined to say precisely how many soldiers are stationed there.
"The problem is not numbers, it is better technology," Kulayigye said.