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Uganda rebels deny northeast Congo massacre

LRA rebel group denies any involvement in mass killings in Congo. Burmese opposition decides to boycott election. North Korea feared responsible for sunk South Korean ship. Afghan offensive in Kandahar to be launched in June. All this and much more, in today’s security briefing.
Dries Belet
30 March 2010

The Lord’s Resistance Army, an infamous Ugandan rebel group, said on Monday that it did not play a part in a brutal massacre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the weekend, the international NGO Human Rights Watch published a report on the carnage, accusing the LRA of hacking and beating to death at least 321 Congolese civilians last December.

LRA spokesman Justine Labeja, who is based in Nairobi, spoke of “baseless accusations” and called the report “yet another fabrication by NGOs, which are advocating war”. David Matsanga, another LRA official, said there were no LRA soldiers in Congo and blamed the massacre on Ugandan troops. An Ugandan army spokesperson immediately denied this allegation.

Near the end of last year, the rebel group is reported to have crossed the Uele river and gone on a rampage throughout northeast Congo. During the course of several days, a contingent of rebels committed a string of atrocities in at least ten remote villages, butchering the local population and hauling off children to be used as slaves or soldiers. The mass killings left a trail of death across an area stretching over 45km.

The openSecurity verdict: The Lord’s Resistance Army is considered an extremely brutal group, having committed some of the worst crimes in central Africa. Emerging towards the end of the 1980s, the rebel army fought a two-decade insurgency in northern Uganda. During that time, it earned a horrendous reputation for its attacks on civilians, which resulted in the displacing of 1.6 million people and the abduction of an estimated 30,000 children. Joseph Nony, the LRA’s leader, claims he wants to install a theocracy in Uganda based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for several of the rebel leaders.

After the start of the rebellion, LRA fighters dispersed through neighbouring countries like Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic. In 2005 the rebel army crossed into northeast Congo, establishing jungle bases from which it continued its terror tactics. A US-backed Ugandan mission to destroy these bases was carried out in 2008, but a remaining LRA group – which the Ugandan military estimates to number a few hundred rebels – still roams freely in the area.

Given the LRA’s gruesome track record, its efforts to deny responsibility for the massacre can hardly be called credible. Moreover, UN human rights officials, who have reached the inaccessible area of the killings and started an investigation, have confirmed the findings of Human Rights Watch in their preliminary report. It is also questionable that LRA spokesmen based in Kenya would have trustworthy information about events in northeast Congo, since there is no evidence of direct communication with rebel commanders in that isolated region.

As the head of MONUC (the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo) has said, an updated strategy is needed to prevent new massacres. Alan Doss stressed the LRA operates in several small but very deadly units over an area the size of Spain, making the UN’s job a Herculean task. Because of the vast territory that needs to be protected, the UN needs better air mobility and more intelligence-gathering assets for early warning, for example through increased cooperation with the local people. Further, since UN forces are occupied with many other rebels groups in the east of Congo, a bigger contribution by UN member states is urgently needed, to allow MONUC to intensify its efforts against the LRA.

Finally, governments in the region should step up to their responsibilities. Ignoring the horrendous facts and hard evidence, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have continued to play down the LRA presence. Only by recognizing the absolute seriousness of the situation, by committing a sufficient number of competent security forces, and by cooperating effectively, can the Congolese and Ugandan governments bring the rebels to justice and restore a sense of security to the traumatized region.

Burmese opposition decides to boycott election

Burma’s largest opposition party, the National League For Democracy (NLD), announced on Monday that it will not stand in this year’s election. The move was not entirely unexpected, since the country’s ruling junta recently published a series of restrictive election laws, barring opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a host of political prisoners from participating.

After a meeting of NLD leaders, the party declared its unanimous decision not to register because of “unfair and unjust” election laws. The boycott raises further questions about the legitimacy of the upcoming elections, which are widely viewed as a blatant attempt by the junta to consolidate its stranglehold on power and gain greater international recognition. It also endangers the future of the NLD: according to new election laws, any party refusing to sign up to the government’s regulations within 60 days will be rendered illegal and dissolved automatically.

The decision split the opposition party, divided by the prospect of either renouncing its principles by participating in a phony election, or upholding its dignity but facing dissolution by law. But after Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for most of the past two decades, said she “would not dream” of entering the election if the decision was hers, the balance tilted decisively in favour of a boycott.

The NLD won a landslide victory during the last democratic polls in 1990. In response, the military government simply annulled the election and ignored the results. The United Nations and the United States have said the new election will not be credible if political prisoners are not allowed to participate.

North Korea feared responsible for sunk South Korean ship

South Korea’s Cheonan ship may have been sunk by a North Korean mine, the South Korean defence minister said on Monday. Kim Tae-young explained that the mine could either have been an underwater device floated recently by North Korea "to inflict damage”, or that it could have been left over from the Korean War. Seoul has been careful in resisting assigning blame for the accident, and has not ruled out an internal malfunction as the cause for the fatal explosion. Kim also played down speculations of a torpedo attack, citing evidence from the ship’s rescued radar operators.

Only 58 sailors were saved in the initial hours after the explosion, and no other crewmembers have been found since. Salvage efforts continued on Monday in an attempt to find 46 sailors believed trapped in a rear segment of the ship, but the divers were hindered by rough weather. South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak visited the waters on Tuesday, urging rescuers to keep on searching for survivors.  However, defence officials feared that the chances of survival for any crewmen still alive are decreasing rapidly.

Afghan offensive in Kandahar to be launched in June

A new US-led offensive in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar is scheduled for June, senior NATO and US military officials said on Monday. Following on the earlier offensive in Marjah, several sources confirmed that major operations have been planned against the Taliban in their heartland of Kandahar.

This new campaign will be a crucial test for President Obama’s surge of 30,000 extra US soldiers in Afghanistan. The US and its NATO allies hope that boosting the total troop count to 150,000 will provide the necessary push to oust the Taliban from their regional stronghold. The operation’s success will be critically determined by the ability of coalition forces and of the Afghan government to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population. Currently, many Afghans from in and around Kandahar support the Taliban and view the central government as corrupt and incapable of providing security.

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