KAMPALA, Uganda – The fugitive African warlord Joseph Kony is jettisoning women and children in a possible desperate bid to keep his weakened group lean and mobile, an expert said Friday, after three women freed by the Lord's Resistance Army arrived home in Uganda after spending years in the bush.
Kasper Agger of the U.S.-based Kony watchdog group Enough Project said the release late last month of 28 LRA abductees by LRA fighters in Congo also suggests the group is undergoing turmoil amid a manhunt — supported by U.S. military advisers — for its leaders.
"It could be an indication that they are trying to become more mobile," Agger said of the LRA, a small but active group of fighters whose rebellion originated in Uganda in the 1980s. "We have seen this before but not on this scale."
Kony, a suspected war criminal who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, possibly is also freeing women to punish commanders of questionable loyalty, Agger said. The LRA rarely releases women, who are often captured as young girls who then become sex slaves for commanders and some fighters. Many women have raised families in captivity, and Kony himself is said to have taken scores of women and sired many children.
In the Ugandan capital, Kampala, three of the 28 women and children freed by the LRA in Congo said Friday they believed Kony gave the order for their release but had no idea why. One of them was pregnant with an LRA fighter's child, said Grace Ocitti, a Ugandan official who was debriefing the women.
This week the U.S. announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the elusive Kony, who last year became the subject a wildly popular online video that highlighted his crimes, including the use of child soldiers.
Ugandan Brig. Dick Olum, the commander of African Union troops tasked with eliminating the LRA, said Friday that Kony was believed to be constantly crossing from Central African Republic to Congo and back. Olum said the decision to free some abductees was not an act of charity and that it was likely taken by a junior LRA commander under pressure to free a wife or girlfriend about to be killed in firefights.
"The LRA, when they know that they are going to lose their families, that's what they do," he said.
African Union troops this week suspended the hunt for Kony in Central African Republic because the new government of former rebels there is hostile to the mission. Most LRA fighters operate in Central African Republic, where last month rebels deposed a president and announced a new government.
Experts say a full withdrawal of the anti-Kony forces from Central African Republic would be good news for the LRA, which over the years has taken advantage of weak movements and porous borders to regroup and recruit fighters.
There are at least 500 LRA fighters still active in the jungles of central Africa, according to Olum. Recent estimates had put the LRA's strength at half that number.