At last, forces from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are jointly fighting to flush out rebels from the jungles of eastern Congo.
The joint force has claimed success without revealing how many rebels killed so far, but has said that at least 61 Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels have surrendered.
Accused of killing civilians for over a decade in the villages of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where it is based, the ADF is also blamed for bomb attacks in neighboring Uganda.
It has been responsible for 6,000 deaths civilians in the DRC since 2013, according to the Catholic Church in the country, including more than 1,200 killed in the Beni area since 2017, the Kivu Security Tracker (KST), a US-based monitor, has said in a statement.
“Since Nov. 30, 2021, the jungles of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have become a battlefield where allied forces of Uganda and the DRC are fighting ADF rebels,” said Thomas Kayoto, an eyewitness living in Uganda at the border with the DRC.
Kayoto said residents in the area saw Ugandan fighter planes flying into DRC airspace and heard the blasts of their bombardments in the forests.
Ronald Kakurungu, a deputy spokesman for the Ugandan army, told reporters that the forays began with the East African nation sent bombing sorties against four ADF bases in the DRC, followed by ground troops from the two countries combing the forest looking for scattered rebels.
Diplomatic agreement, domestic opposition
Uganda’s deployment came after lengthy talks with the DRC as Kampala sought its neighbor’s consent to attack the rebels across the border. After Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently met with his counterpart Felix Tshisekedi, the two countries came to an agreement for joint operations to against the ADF.
Still, the move has been met with domestic criticism, as the government did not receive parliamentary approval for the cross-border deployment — something stipulated by Uganda’s Constitution, with opposition leader Bobi Wine saying in an interview that the attacks on the bases in the DRC were illegal.
“When the country begins to attack rebels in another country without following the law, there is so much to worry about,” said Wine.
Ibrahim Semujju Nganda, an opposition lawmaker and spokesman for the Forum for Democratic Change party, said: “It was wrong for our army to be deployed in the DRC without permission from parliament.
He added that the last time Uganda’s army was deployed in the DRC in 2005, its officers “ended up looting minerals from there and we were taken to international court,” adding that the country had been handed a hefty fine.
Another criticism of the military offensive is that focusing on the factors that push people to join the ADF would be more a more effective strategy against the rebels.
Kizza Besigye, a retired military colonel-turned-politician, told Anadolu Agency it would be unnecessary to deploy Ugandan troops outside the country if authorities would first deal with such factors, such as “bad governance.”
Army spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso, however, defended the government line, arguing that had authorities sought lawmakers’ assent, this would have alerted the rebels hiding out in the region of their intentions.
“In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the parliament endorsed the joint operation, just like the east African community parliament,” said Byekwaso.
She told Anadolu Agency that the Ugandan forces would keep launching attacks into the DRC until the ADF is completely eliminated.
Another retired officer, Samuel Okello, however, has said that the offensive could prove more difficult due to its setting.
Underlining that the jungles where the operations are taking place are expansive and provide the rebels with a myriad of hiding spots to take cover, he opined that attacking them there may not yield immediate results.
“The forests where ADF rebels are based are very big. They can easily relocate from one part to another under the cover of the thick forest,” he said.
– Drawn-out conflict
Launched in western Uganda in 1995, the ADF is considered a terrorist group by Uganda and the international community, including the US. It seeks to overthrow the Museveni-led Uganda government.
Uganda’s military drove the organization further west into the jungles of the eastern DRC, where they are accused of attacking villages, killing civilians, rape, abducting young people to forcibly recruit, looting property, and planning bomb attacks in Uganda. Washington recently deemed the ADF the most deadly armed group in the eastern DRC.
After several bomb attacks by suspected ADF rebels in Uganda last month that killed at least five people, the country’s president said the group intends to attack Uganda from its bases across the border. “They come from there and kill our people. They also come from there and plant bombs in Kampala. We shall go and get kill them … We are in talks with the DRC leadership so they allow us to go and get rid of the ADF”
A few days after the statement, Ugandan and Congolese forces launched a joint surprise attack on ADF bases in the DRC.
As the operations continued on Wednesday, Museveni briefed the UN Security Council on the offensive, meeting with representatives of the council’s five permanent members at the State House in the town of Entebbe, according to an official statement.
There, the diplomats voiced support for the effort but requested Ugandan forces closely coordinate with the UN stabilization mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), added the statement from the State House.