Central Africa: U.S.-Sponsored Visit to Anti-Kony Staging Camp Produces Flurry of News

U.S. and Ghanaian soldiers discuss logistics for procuring and transporting medical equipment during a U.S. capacity building initiative .
30 April 2012

Nairobi — An unusual dateline - Obo, Central African Republic - appeared in newspapers and on radio broadcasts across the globe Monday morning.

A string of stories were published and aired by reporters who were taken to a base that is one of four used by U.S. Special Forces involved in the search for the Ugandan-born Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has carried on a terror campaign victimizing civilians across the central African region for more than two decades.

Arranged by the U.S. State Department, the trip was intended to focus media attention on the international effort to apprehend Kony and other LRA leaders, American officials said.

A contingent of 100 U.S. Special Forces is working with thousands of soldiers from four armies in the region - from Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic.

"In Obo, the terrain is so remote that it took the U.S. military four months to carve out its jungle camp," according to the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock.

"About half of the U.S. contingent is based at a joint operations center near the international airport in Entebbe, Uganda," Whitlock wrote. The other base camps -- no less remote, according to U.S. officials, are at Djema in the Central African Republic, Dungu in the DRC and Nzara in South Sudan. "The military arranged for journalists to arrive on chartered Cessnas, scattering stray dogs while landing on a makeshift dirt runway," he said in his Washington Post article.

About 20 U.S. Army Green Berets are stationed at Obo, the capital of the Haut-Mbomou prefecture or province near the country's southeastern border with South Sudan.

"The military would not permit journalists to tour the American camp - which villagers described as being protected by razor wire and cameras - but granted interviews with the local U.S. commander and security forces from Uganda and the Central African Republic who also are based here."

"Kony has reportedly stopped using radios and satellite phones for communications, instead relying on an elaborate system involving runners and multiple rendezvous points," David Rising from the Associated Press said in his report. "Key to his capture is good information from local residents - which they will only give when they can be sure of their own safety, according to American commanders," Rising reported.

"The Americans joined the hunt about six months ago to track a man whose followers have cut a swath of violence through the heart of Africa---leaving rape victims, child soldiers, mutilated bodies and destabilized governments in their wake," Solomon Moore, the Wall Street Journal's Nairobi-based correspondent, said in his story.

"The Central African Republic would be an excellent place to disappear," wrote Jeff Gettleman in the New York Times. "Its national army is one of the region's smallest and weakest. Its terrain is primordially thick. And its infrastructure is shambolic."

As the reports make clear, the multi-national search effort is encountering many obstacles. "Because there are so few roads and telephones, it often takes weeks for news of an attack to reach the fusion center," Gettleman reported. "By the time the Green Berets sift the information and help dispatch the Ugandan hunting squads, Mr. Kony is gone. The Americans say they never go on patrols themselves."

The journalists also encountered obstacles to getting to the story, in spite of the logistical support from the U.S. government. Bruce Wharton, the State Department official who led the trip, tweeted last Friday from his account @BruceWharton: "Stranded in Gulu, Uganda by bad weather. Look for hotel, hope to fly out tomorrow. Have to roll with Mother Africa!"

The reporters traveled to Bangui, the Central African capital, and to Uganda, where they were joined by Ugandan journalists and other reporters for international media based in Nairobi.

According to the Wall Street Journal's Moore, "LRA raids and abductions still take place---military and humanitarian officials say the group is still attempting to reconstitute itself---but they are fewer and smaller now. Most attacks now take place in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic---a total of 53 attacks and 90 abductions by March 31, said the United Nations."

American officials told the reporters that they think Kony, who was forced out of Uganda in 2006, is now operating in a remote section of the Central African Republic. But Aronda Nyakairima, Uganda's chief of defence forces, said in Kampala on Monday that Kony has also been operating in contested areas dividing South Sudan from the north of that country, according to AFP.

There is no evidence that Sudan has resumed support for Kony, Nyakirima said, but his ability to operate in the area where fighting has broken out between Sudanese and South Sudan forces could complicate the multi-national efforts to capture or kill him and eradicate the LRA.

The heightened focus on Kony follows growing pressure in the U.S. Congress, which passed legislation in 2010 requiring the administration to step-up anti-LRA efforts, as well as the outcry following release in March by the group known as Invisible Children of the "Kony 2012" video that has attracted over 88 million views on You Tube.

"I think Kony, for lack of an ideology, for lack of a political agenda, for lack of an intellectually identifiable cause, and for the brutality with which he operates, is at the top of the list of international bad guys," Wharton, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Africa Bureau, told Reuters' Richard Lough.

"People here in Obo are optimistic that the recent arrival of U.S. Special Forces will help deliver the final blow to the elusive group," the Voice of America's Gabe Joselow said in his report from Obo.

A number of the journalists reporting from Obo visited the headquarters of the U.S. Africa Command -- Africom - in Stuttgart, Germany for a briefing from the commander, General Carter Ham and other officials who are directing the American engagement. They included Gettleman (NYTimes), Whitlock (Washington Post) and Rising (AP), as well as Dan Damon (BBC) and Carine Frenck (RFI).

"The global effort to try to find Osama bin Laden took 10 years with an extraordinary level of effort... the highest priority for the international intelligence community, and it still took 10 years to find him," Ham told the reporters, according to Reuters.

After reports began appearing early Monday, Wharton sent a tweet apparently intended to provide additional context for the American involvement. U.S. expenditures on military efforts to counter Kony since 2008 have totaled about $50 million, compared with $500 million in U.S. aid "to address Kony damage in N. Uganda," Wharton said on Twitter.

More coverage from the trip is expected, Wharton also wrote: "Look for follow-on reporting about larger needs and US support to overcome Kony's damage."

Coverage from the Ugandan media:

New Vision: Central Africa: Omar Bashir Renews Support for Kony

Monitor: Khartoum aiding Kony rebels again

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