Rights group says Lord's Resistance Army killed 255 over 18 months in central Africa

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — One of Africa's most vicious rebel groups has killed at least 255 people over the past 18 months in a largely unreported campaign of abductions and massacres in Congo and the Central African Republic, a human rights group said in a report sent to journalists Thursday.

The Lord's Resistance Army began its attacks in Uganda more than 20 years ago and has since been pushed progressively westward. It is now active in the triangle of land that stretches across the border between Congo, Central African Republic and southern Sudan.

There the foreign rebel group has been replenishing its ranks by waging a campaign of abductions including scores of children who have been forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its report. Adults, who are used as porters, are also among those abducted.

During the kidnappings, the LRA brutally killed those who walked too slowly, or who buckled under the heavy loads they were forced to carry, the report said. Many had their skulls crushed with clubs; children taken into captivity were forced to beat to death other children, including their own siblings.

The large-scale abductions began in southern Central African Republic in July 2009, where over 300 of the nearly 700 kidnap victims were taken, the report said. The most recent abductions were on June 12 and June 13, when 16 more people were seized including a 2-year-old girl who was later slaughtered.

At the same time, a kidnapping campaign was underway in the remote Bas Uele district of northern Congo, where the LRA kidnapped around 80 people in March from the town off Banda. Two months later, they attacked the villages near Ango and those that escaped told the rights group that the rebels had questioned them about the location of schools indicating they were looking for elementary-school age children, according to the report.

The LRA has a history of swelling its ranks with children as young as 10, who are easier to control. They break them by forcing them to perform unspeakable brutalities on other children, including their own brothers or sisters.

Of the 45 children interviewed by Human Rights Watch that had escaped from the LRA, almost all had been forced to kill other children.

A 17-year-old Congolese girl named Osanna who had been abducted from Banda in March 2009 protested when the commander she had been assigned to tried to rape her. The rebels tied her up and forced the other children abducted from her hometown to take turns smashing her head with a heavy wooden stick until she died, the report said. Among the children forced to participate was her 12-year-old sister.

"The LRA continues its horrific campaign to replenish its ranks by brutally tearing children from their villages and forcing them to fight," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The evidence points to Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, as the author of this atrocious campaign."

Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court under a 2005 warrant for crimes against humanity in his native Uganda.

Former abductees said the kidnappings were being carried out according to Kony's orders who wanted his commanders to replenish their ranks. Four escapees said that Kony had given specific orders to abduct children. Some said the reason for the replenishment campaign was to enable the LRA to return to Uganda.

The LRA began in northern Uganda in the 1980s where it initially had popular support from northerners that felt marginalized by the central government. They spread to southern Sudan, prompting the Ugandan military to lead a series of military raids to destroy their forest sanctuaries.

In 2005, one of Kony's deputies and around 60 LRA combatants from Uganda and Sudan crossed into Congo setting up camp inside the Garamba National Park, according to Human Rights Watch. By 2007, the force had relocated to Congo and eventually spread to Central African Republic.

For some time there was a lull in the atrocities during peace talks led by Uganda. But the combatants, according to Human Rights Watch, set up substantial farms inside the Congolese national forest and used this period to stockpile food and supplies.

By the end of 2007, they began replenishing their ranks through abductions. And by 2008, they viciously turned against Congolese civilians in retaliation for the help they had given to defectors. In the "Christmas Massacre" of 2008, at least 865 people were killed in northern Congo, according to the rights group. A year later another 345 were killed in the Makombo area of Congo.

Most of these massacres including the recent campaign of killings and abductions go unreported for months, because the areas where the atrocities are being carried are too remote for either the U.N. or aid groups to access.