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LRA Rebel Fighter Numbers Dwindling, Officials Say

NAIROBI, Kenya-- The number of soldiers in the rebel Lord's Resistance Army has dwindled to the low hundreds, and without external support the ultraviolent group could soon cease to exist, Uganda's military spokesman said, echoing the findings of a new report.

The Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, has about 400 fighters, less than half the number the group had two years ago, according to a report from the Enough Project, which was based on interviews with more than five dozen former LRA troops.

Uganda's army spokesman, Felix Kulayigye, told The Associated Press on Tuesday he thinks the current LRA strength is even lower -- 200 fighters. That's far below the strength the LRA had at its height in 2003, when it had 3,000 armed troops and 2,000 people in support roles. Still, the group is extremely dangerous. As recently as May, the LRA killed 36 people and drove 10,000 from their homes in Central African Republic, the U.N. said.

The LRA's leader, Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, entered the Darfur region of Sudan last month, said Kulayigye. Ugandan forces have been pursuing Kony across central Africa since the launch of a U.S.-supported operation in December 2008, but Ugandan troops cannot follow Kony into Sudan.

Uganda believes that Sudanese officials know Kony is there but don't know whether he is receiving support from the Khartoum government. Khartoum once backed Kony but severed the relationship in 2005, at the signing of a peace agreement between north and south Sudan.

Darfur, Kulayigye said, is a difficult place to operate for Kony, and "he can only stay there if he gets support from the Sudan Armed Forces."

In late 2008 the Ugandan government launched Operation Lighting Thunder, a hunt for Kony's group that forced LRA fighters to scatter in small groups. Pockets of fighters are believed to be operating in Sudan, Congo, and Central African Republic.

The new report, "The Lord's Resistance Army of Today," said that Kony no longer has complete and direct command and control over each LRA unit because they scattered. The LRA is now at its weakest point in 15 years, and Kony has less influence over his troops than ever before, said the report, which was released Monday.

The Ugandan army says its forces have killed almost 400 LRA fighters since the start of Operation Lightning Thunder, according to the report, while warning that "the LRA's propensity for violence remains undiminished."

The LRA is known for vicious attacks against civilians and for abducting and forcing children to become members of the group. The U.N. reported in December that the LRA had killed 1,200 people in northeastern Congo from September 2008 to June 2009. The LRA has cut off lips and ears of survivors.

A team of American doctors from Kansas City was in northern Uganda last week and operated on LRA victims. Dr. David Kriet, a reconstructive surgeon, told AP that the primary LRA-inflicted injuries he operated on were mutilated or amputated ears. The rebels commonly mutilated the ears of those who refused to obey their orders," said Kriet, who traveled to Uganda with the Medical Missions Foundation.

U.S. legislation that was signed into law in May requires the U.S. to develop a strategy by late November to protect civilians from the LRA and to "eliminate" the threat to civilians. The law calls for coordination of U.S. diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military efforts.

Kulayigye said Ugandan forces have long received "invaluable" support from the U.S. military, including intelligence sharing. The report released Monday says U.S. intelligence sources pass on information to Uganda's army about satellite phone calls made by the LRA, but that LRA callers often walk 10 miles (16 kilometers) from their base before placing a call. The U.S. intercepts are passed on about 24 hours after the calls, leaving the LRA time to evade pursuing forces.

Kulayigye said it is possible Sudan could begin supporting the LRA once more, especially if tensions rise between Sudan's north and south ahead of a January independence referendum that could see the south vote to become a new country. But without new support, he said, the LRA's two-decade rampage could soon be finished.

"Minus any external factor the LRA is dying," Kulayigye said.

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