KAMPALA, Uganda – Ugandan officials are renewing a claim made with some frequency over the years: That rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army are receiving backing from the government of Sudan.
Ugandan forces commander Gen. Aronda Nyakairima said Monday he found credible a recent report from a captured LRA fighter saying that Kony was recently in the southern region of Sudan.
Col. Felix Kulayigye, the military's spokesman, said some of the LRA rebels captured by the Ugandan military wore "new uniforms" supplied by Sudan, though Nyakairima said military officials have not found LRA fighters with weapons supplied by Sudan.
President Barack Obama sent 100 U.S. forces into Central Africa last year to help regional militaries track Kony, and an online campaign this year by the advocacy group Invisible Children made Kony a YouTube sensation.
"Kony has always been a pawn in the Khartoum chess game over South Sudan. They have used him before and they hope to use him again to destabilize South Sudan," Kulayigye said.
Abdulla Ali Masar, Sudan's information minister, denied his government has ever supported the LRA.
"We have no relationship, whatsoever, with this Ugandan rebel and we have not supported and are not supporting him now," Masar said. He said Kony "is nearer to South Sudan than to us and, in any case, we have no reason to support him. We rely on our own forces and we do not need anybody to support us in defending our country and ourselves."
The accusations by Uganda that Sudan is aiding Kony come as the threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan has increased. The two sides have launched multiple cross-border attacks and Sudan has launched airstrikes in recent weeks.
Ugandan officials have long accused Khartoum of supporting the LRA in retaliation for Uganda's support of the rebel movement known as the SPLA, which is now South Sudan's military. South Sudan broke away from Sudan last year after voting for independence.
Okello Oryem, Uganda's foreign affairs minister, told The Associated Press on Monday the LRA would have been long ago eliminated had it not been backed by Sudan.
"It's been universally known that the LRA has been receiving support from elements within the Khartoum government or the Sudan Armed Forces," Oryem said. He said Khartoum still gives Kony medicine, guns and uniforms — "the kinds of things a rebel wants."
Kulayigye said that last week there were reports of Kony's presence in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi told three U.S. lawmakers who visited with him in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in early April that Kony may still be getting supplies from Sudan.
"The original plan of Sudan was to use Kony to destabilize the region," he said. "They wanted to use the LRA to attack Chad. Kony was central to this plan ... . Kony still has some assistance, not much; it's covert assistance. "
Ugandan officials are concerned that Kony, whose brutal group has navigated the region's porous borders in a highly successful campaign of murder and the abduction of children, could exploit renewed border tensions between Sudan and South Sudan to get back near Ugandan territory.
Some analysts say the conflict between the north and south is just what the LRA needs: the opportunity to be courted and then used in a proxy war.
Angelo Izama, a Kampala-based political analyst with the security think tank Fanaka Kwawote, said it was "the perfect time" for Kony to be influential again within the region.
"I have no doubt in my mind that it is the intention of the north (to use the LRA)," he said. "The LRA has always been a beneficiary of the fight between the north and the south."
The U.S. troops helping hunt Kony are in four regional countries affected by the LRA.
The Ugandan military has since 2008 focused on the Central African Republic, and the top Ugandan commander there insists the warlord is hiding somewhere in the vast jungle. Col. Joseph Balikuddembe told an AP reporter on Sunday that Kony is in the Central African Republic. U.S. officials believe he is likely there as well.
Ugandan foot soldiers said they rarely encounter LRA rebels. Some complained of boredom, saying they were tired of spending their days looking for a phantom enemy, and others said the endless search through treacherous jungle was frustrating. The rank-and-file soldiers said they would like to be deployed in the Congo, where most of the attacks by suspected LRA have been reported in recent times.
Ugandan army officials say there are no more than 200 LRA fighters and that the rebels move in very small groups to avoid being detected. There is no LRA presence in Uganda, where the group's rebellion started out as a popular uprising by northerners against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's southern-dominated government.
Associated Press reporter Mohamed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan contributed to this report. Muhumuza reported from Nairobi, Kenya.