Misanet.com / IPS, 14 May - Ugandan rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) based in southern Sudan have killed more than 470 civilians over the last few weeks, according to local church leaders. The government of Sudan has vowed to capture the rebels and bring them to justice. In one attack, the church says, rebel fighters stripped girls naked and forced them to drink their urine before raping and abducting them.
The Sudanese Catholic diocese of Torit says the villagers were living in the Imatong Mountains in the Eastern Equatoria region of southern Sudan.
Six villages were also torched and some 500 people fled their homes in fear. "I call on the international community to come and rescue these poor people who have been forced to abandon their homes during the harvest season," says Monsignor Johnson Akio Mutek, the acting bishop of Torit, a town just north of the Ugandan border.
Sujar Udin Hamid, a senior official at the Sudanese embassy in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, says his government will step up efforts to capture the rebels and their leader, Joseph Kony. "Action must be taken, I believe, for this person to be brought to justice, Joseph Kony. Because he's now a criminal and he has blocked the way for any amnesty he can receive. He cannot just kill people like that. Activities should be intensified to catch him and bring him to justice," says Hamid.
This marks a dramatic turnaround in Sudanese government policy. Until recently, the government of Sudan was the LRA's major backer. This was part of a tit-for-tat policy to punish Uganda for supporting the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a rebel group that has been fighting successive Sudanese government since 1983.
The two governments have now agreed to co-operate to stamp out the LRA, who have been terrorising the people of northern Uganda from their bases in southern Sudan for the last 14 years. In March, Sudan gave Ugandan troops permission to enter its territory to destroy the LRA.
Sudan has - until now - vowed to stay neutral. But with Sudanese civilians coming under attack from the retreating rebels, their government is being forced to take fresh measures to protect them.
Hamid hints that Sudanese forces could join the Ugandan in hunting down and capturing the rebels. "The current co-operation now is just falling short of active military operations. It would be an extension - stretch more arms - in order to reach Joseph Kony.
- This is to be decided by the government, he adds, "and I don't want to say something to pre-empt what they are doing. Maybe they are doing more. But definitely they are not going to be mute about what happened to those civilians," he promises.
The SPLA have been quick to blame Khartoum for the killings - which, it claims, took place on government-controlled territory. "It looks like a conspiracy between the LRA and the government of Sudan," says SPLA spokesperson in Nairobi, Samson Kwaje.
However, Hamid says the SPLA should not be so quick to condemn. "I don't think that's correct. I'm not sure whether it's under the control of the government or not. I cannot tell because it was near Torit and it is only Torit that is under the control of the government. South of it, I think, is SPLA controlled."
- They can't make a political thing out of it because those are Sudanese civilians, he says. "After all, even the SPLA are Sudanese civilians. Hamid believes the safety of ordinary people is the important issue here. "The safety of citizens, whether they are under control of the SPLA or elsewhere, is a prime responsibility of all parties to the conflict."
- Joseph Kony, the UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Force], the Sudanese army, SPLA, everybody must not target civilians and kill them like that, he urges. The Sudanese government has told local people, via the radio, to move into areas controlled by Ugandan or Sudanese forces for greater security.
- A directive was issued to the civilians in the areas of combat from Radio Juba directing them to go to certain areas under the control of Sudanese army and or the Ugandan People's Defence Forces to avoid being targeted by Joseph Kony, says Hamid. "That was a broadcast issued a few days ago. That means they are already aware of the seriousness of the situation and they are taking action towards the protection of civilians," he adds.
However, the Ugandan army said Sunday that it is Sudan's responsibility to protect its own civilians because Ugandan troops are constantly on the move.
- It is now up to the Sudanese government to find a solution to the problem, says Ugandan army spokesperson Major Shaban Bantariza. "It would be presumptuous of us to say that we can guarantee their security because our nature of operation is fluid and mobile," he says.
Most of the LRA fighters are Ugandan children who were abducted from their homes and forced to fight for the rebels. LRA leader Kony claims to be fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government and replace it with one based on the biblical Ten Commandments.
Sudan has given the Ugandan army permission to patrol the area until 18 May in search for rebel fighters. The agreement will then be reviewed and could well be extended. The Ugandan army estimates that there are some 10,000 LRA soldiers. It has over-run their bases but has not yet captured any fighters.