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U.S. lends support in hunt for notorious African warlord

From Nima Elbagir, CNN
updated 4:10 AM EDT, Mon April 30, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joseph Kony is head of the Lord's Resistance Army
  • He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity
  • Kony became a household name after a video about him went viral on the Internet
  • President Barack Obama has sent troops to help chase down LRA leaders

Obo, Central African Republic (CNN) -- The lush, green forests of central Africa have long been the playground and refuge of the continent's most-notorious warlord, Joseph Kony.

His Lord's Resistance Army, which began with the aim of overthrowing the Ugandan government, has since spread to remote hinterlands on the borders of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Though officials don't know exactly where Kony is, U.S. troops have been sent to the area to help find and defeat the LRA leader.

They have made progress. But as CNN has learned, much work remains to be done -- both to locate Kony and to restore a sense of stability and safety to the region.

"Kony is definitely still a threat. He's been on the run. He's on the decline, and in survival mode, but he is still dangerous and he's going to be dangerous until the LRA are eliminated," said a captain with U.S. Special Forces.

The 'Kony 2012' phenomenon

The captain, who CNN agreed not to identify because of concerns for his safety, spoke in Obo, a village in the Central African Republic.

Part 1: President Yoweri Museveni

President Barack Obama directed the deployment of about 100 troops to central Africa last year to help hunt down leaders of the LRA. Distributed among four operating bases, they are advising regional forces.

Ugandan Pres. Museveni on 'Kony 2012'

"We help our partner nation forces ask the right questions -- the who, the what, the when, the where and the why -- to get all the information," the captain said.

Response to Kony 2012 Part II

The LRA has been on the run since being scattered from a temporary base in Congolese territory by a botched 2008 U.S.-backed attack on Kony's position, dubbed Operation Lightning Thunder.

Since then, LRA attacks have killed 2,400 people and displaced 465,000, according to Resolve Uganda, a nonprofit group that monitors LRA activity. Another 3,400 people have been abducted.

Kony, who became a household name when a video about him went viral on the Internet this year, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. He and his group are accused of killing and maiming villagers, abducting children and turning them into soldiers or sex slaves.

Madelaine Simbachalanio is considered one of the lucky ones.

She was abducted by LRA soldiers, but released into the forest once they reached their base camp, she said. Miraculously -- exhausted and terrified -- she made her way home. Many of those taken with her were never seen or heard from again.

Part of the difficulty in tracking Kony stems from the fact he can move freely across porous borders, and not all countries in the region have joined the chase, said Ugandan armed forces spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye.

He believes Kony is shuffling between Sudan and the Central African Republic.

"This is the strategy that he has used for the last four to five years. When the pressure is too much here, he runs across the border because he knows we are not allowed to go after him," Kulayigye said. "Whenever pressure is high, he just switches to north Sudan. It hampers our operation."

But a spokesman for the Sudanese information ministry denied the allegation.

"This is completely incorrect," said Rabi Abd al-Ati. "We don't accommodate rebels from Uganda or elsewhere. ... The LRA has no existence in our areas."

Regardless of where Kony is, the hope is that the search to find him will not only lead to his capture, but also bring an end to the long, regional nightmare he unleashed.

Despite the presence of troops, some people in Obo say they are still too afraid to sleep in their beds.

They sleep in the yard, hiding in the undergrowth outside their houses, because they worry the LRA will come for them in the night.

Reclaiming peoples' lives from that fear is as much a part of the job as capturing Kony, said the Special Forces captain.

"I think this mission is a very worthwhile one, and it's going to bring stability to a region that has been without stability for a long time. If we can do anything to help reduce the atrocities, and make the locals feel safe, then, I think, it's definitely worthwhile," he said.

Journalist Isma'il Kushkush contributed to this report.

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