DR Congo + 1 more

Sudan: LRA rebels put Congo civilians to flight

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YAMBIO, 22 October 2008 (IRIN) - The recent attack on Dungu town in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo by the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) occurred on a quiet morning, displaced civilians said.

"We were in the fields working, when the warning went out that they were coming with guns," Aneshi Sheroze, a 22-year old farmer, explained.

"We ran back, but they were already killing and burning our houses, and then the Catholic mission."

The northern Ugandan insurgents, now based in remote Congolese jungle hideouts, then dragged away school children, binding their hands tightly together.

"They destroyed our homes and took the children all away," Sheroze said, recounting the attack as he queued to register with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the southern Sudanese town of Yambio.

The attack sent the villagers trekking some 55km through thick jungle to the Sudan border, avoiding roads for fear of running into other rebel units. Sheroze carried his two young children.

Eventually, they sought shelter in the village of Gangura, some 13km inside Sudan.

The attack, the villagers told IRIN, was part of a series of raids launched by the rebel army, and marks a return to its violent trademark attacks and mass abductions following a period of largely relative calm during on-and-off peace talks.

"The LRA have raided us before for food, but this time they were killing, and destroying our grain stores," said Joyce, another Democratic Republic of Congo refugee.

Observers fear the attacks have largely sunk hopes that LRA commander Joseph Kony could sign a long-delayed peace deal hammered out in three years of negotiations.

They've also sparked fears that the rebels are now recruiting for a renewed offensive in what is already one of Africa's longest conflicts.

A preliminary report released by the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC) following a visit to the burnt villages accused the LRA of brutal attacks.

"In all localities that suffered attacks, the LRA elements conducted a campaign of killing, systematic abduction of children, and burning of almost all houses," the report reads.

Heavy burden

Some 4,000 refugees have fled to south Sudan according to UNHCR, but many more thousands have been displaced within the DRC. Several hundred are within southern Sudan, where the rebels also raided.

The latest violence, officials in Southern Sudan said, has put a heavy burden on the southern state of Western Equatoria, which is already struggling to reintegrate its own people returning after being displaced in Sudan's civil war. That war ended in a peace deal three years ago.

"We have refugees from the DR Congo, displaced southern Sudanese and Sudanese who have recently returned after the war," said Lexson Wali Amozai, director of the Southern Sudan Refugee and Rehabilitation Commission in Western Equatoria

"We have increased security, but many are very scared, and they need long term humanitarian assistance."

Kony and his top commanders, who head an army accused of massacring and mutilating thousands, are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on war crimes charges.

Thousands of people, mainly in northern Uganda, have died in more than two decades of the LRA's insurgency, while nearly two million were forced from their homes at the height of the conflict.

Kony began battling the Ugandan government in 1988 for what he said was the marginalisation of northern Uganda, but his army was later driven first into Southern Sudan, then into DRC.

Now the LRA are believed to operate across the remote border areas far from control in DRC, raiding villages in Sudan as well as the Central African Republic.

The villagers from Dungu said the rebels were clearing a vast area of forest as their military base.

"They told people that these lands belong to them, and that anyone would be killed if they crossed into them," said Gungbale Gengate, a Protestant priest from Napopo village.

Killers

Gengate, whose Bible school was destroyed by rebels and is now sheltering in Yambio, dismissed reports that Kony claims torun his army on the biblical 10 Commandments.

"These people have no religion - they are killers," Gengate said.

But the LRA spokesman David Nyekorach-Matsanga claimed it was another unnamed militia who carried out the attacks.

"There are many rebel and private militias operating in that region, and these attacks were not by the LRA," said Matsanga, who is based in Kenya but claims to have regular contact with the rarely heard-from Kony.

He also rejected allegations from the ICC that the rebels had renewed recruitment, calling the Hague-based court a "pot of lies".

"The institution of (the) ICC alleges that the LRA have recruited 1,000 fighters," he said. "It is now clear that the ICC targets Africans as their specimen to be used in their laboratory in The Hague."

The refugees from Dungu insisted the attacks were by the LRA. "We know them, because they have raided us many times, looting our houses for food," said Joyce.

"This time they were killing people...When they attacked I hid behind my hut because I wanted to get what I could of my belongings, and I saw them clearly."

Many of the refugees say they have been treated well on their arrival in southern Sudan, in a region where many speak the same Zande language.

However, they are fearful of the future, without homes and few job prospects in a region itself chronically under developed and recovering from war.

"They have destroyed our lives," said Joyce.

pm/sr

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