NAIROBI, Kenya — The U.S. military has dropped its first set of boots into the tropical overgrowth of central Africa, one of the most inaccessible areas of the world, to help fight a brutal rogue rebel group that's known for abducting children and mutilating the faces of victims.
The armed commandos aren't there to fight, only to help the Ugandan army hunt down the elusive Lord's Resistance Army and its legendary leader, Joseph Kony, officials say.
The U.S. special operations troops have arrived in the southeastern Central African Republic town of Obo since the beginning of the month, said a U.S. official in Kampala, Uganda, who wouldn't say how many troops were deployed. The official was allowed to talk only if he remained anonymous.
American troops have descended into what could be considered the most remote spot in Africa. Obo is only 10 miles from what's known technically as the continent's "pole of inaccessibility," the place that's the farthest removed from the ocean in any direction.
That geographic curse has left the wider area's inhabitants mostly ungoverned by weak national capitals hundreds of miles away, with few roads connecting them to the outside world. The area also is covered in thick green vegetation, which makes heavy transportation difficult.
Those factors have become a recipe for disaster, as Ugandan mystic rebel leader Kony scattered his many armed men across central Africa in late 2008 after a botched U.S.-backed Ugandan military operation known as "Operation Lightning Thunder."
Kony is thought to be in the southeastern region of the Central African Republic, and bands of his men roam across the northeastern portions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and southwestern South Sudan. The Ugandan military pursues them across national boundaries.
Altogether, the U.S. has plans to deploy 100 troops in the mission to help the Ugandan and other national armies kill or apprehend Kony, but most of those American personnel will be based in Kampala coordinating logistics and communications, the U.S. official said.
Those in the field will be there in an advisory and supporting role, and — although armed — are under orders not to fire unless it's necessary for self-defense. Deployments to other spots in the field will continue throughout December, the U.S. official said.
"They are primarily focused on sharing information, making sure that local commanders have the information that they need to act quickly and appropriately," the official said.
Congress passed a bill last year with rare bipartisan backing that requires President Barack Obama to report to lawmakers with a new strategy for ending the threat posed by the Lord's Resistance Army.
The bill was pushed through with heavy lobbying by a citizen advocacy movement that was mobilized by tales of the brutality Kony's men leave in their wake. Attacking random villages for food and sustenance, they abduct children, brainwashing the boys as child soldiers and taking the girls as "wives."
The rebel group, which originated as a northern Uganda cult and which the Sudanese government supported for years, tortures and maims villagers — or worse. Washington lists the group as a terrorist organization, and Kony has been indicted at the International Criminal Court.
The mission against the Lord's Resistance Army has no defined end date, but the U.S. official said he didn't think it was "open-ended" and that it would be re-evaluated constantly.
The Obama administration's counter-terrorism operations have featured the heavy use of aerial attacks by unmanned drones, a tactic used much more frequently now than it was under President George W. Bush, but Col. Felix Kulayigye, Uganda's military spokesman, dismissed the idea that such capabilities could finish off Kony.
"Air support in the equatorian forests means nothing," he said, referring to the dense tree cover in southern South Sudan and across the region, which has allowed Kony and his men to thrive for so long.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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