LRA rebel commander capture boosts hunt for Kony
The capture of one of the Lord Resistance Army’s top commanders is a major blow for the rebel group and will provide a boost for those hunting its leader Joseph Kony, analysts say.
Caesar Acellam, the most senior LRA leader ever captured, surrendered after a brief clash with Ugandan soldiers in the Central African Republic who had spent around three weeks waiting to ambush him.
“This is a major asset to have on your side,” Angelo Izama, a political analyst with the Kampala-based security thinktank Fanaka Kwawote, told AFP.
“It will be like walking into a house with the lights on rather than the lights off. Now with Acellam they can see much better where they are going.”
The Ugandan army called Acellam, who was previously the LRA’s intelligence chief, a “big fish” and said that his capture could help end the rebel group’s 25-year insurgency.
Analysts said that Acellam had fallen out with Kony several years ago over failed peace negotiations, and had been close to defecting on a number of occasions.
However, Acellam had remained in the bush and — given reassurances over his future and a possible amnesty deal — could provide a treasure trove of information, including Kony’s possible location and strategy.
“On the face of it, it is a huge opportunity and I think this could be the final blow,” said Sunday Okello, from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
“We didn’t know so much about the LRA structure, how they operate, what they really do, so this is really very good,” he added.
Recruited into the LRA as a student in 1988, Acellam said he had left his group of 30 — including 14 fighters — in Democratic Republic of Congo days earlier and claimed he was trying to defect.
Acellam tried to downplay his role within the rebel ranks, saying that his importance had dwindled since he was injured in 2002, but admitted that his detention would be a big psychological blow to the rebels.
“My coming out will have a big impact for the people still in the bush to come out and end this war soon,” he said, addressing journalists dressed in camouflage fatigues and a claret beret.
Tim Allen, a professor at the London School of Economics and author of a book on the LRA, supported the suggestion it could encourage others to surrender.
“Maybe there will be others that will follow Acellam if there is publicity about him being given amnesty,” Allen said. “If they are sure they will not be killed by the Ugandan forces, they may do that at some point.”
However, Allen said the situation is “different” for the top three commanders — Kony, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen — wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including mutilation and murder.
If he cooperates with intelligence officers, Acellam could also shed light on his liaison role with the Sudanese government, which supported the LRA in the early 2000s — and allegations Khartoum has continued backing the rebels.
Acellam is “an important catch particularly since he can describe the present relationship with the Sudanese,” said Ledio Cakaj, an independent researcher who was previously based in LRA-affected regions for the Enough Project group.
Around 100 US special forces were deployed to the area late last year to bolster the regional forces hunting the LRA — above all with intelligence and logistics support.
Ugandan and US officials refused to comment directly on the role played by special forces in Acellam’s capture, but Acellam’s group was being monitored in DR Congo, where the Ugandan army is not currently deployed.
Regardless, Acellam’s apprehension was a sign that increased efforts to end the LRA threat are paying off, analyst Izama said.
“The pressure on the LRA is acute and that pressure contributed to these circumstances,” Izama said.
Kony started his rebellion in northern Uganda more than two decades ago, but has since been chased to the jungles of neighbouring central African states.
Kony’s global notoriety soared over the past year through the Internet video campaign “Kony 2012″ which has been watched tens of millions of times since it was posted online by the US advocacy group Invisible Children.
The video was criticised by some who said it oversimplified the root causes of the LRA’s devastating insurgency.
The African Union is currently setting up a 5,000-strong force made up of soldiers from affected countries to help better coordinate the cross-border hunt for the LRA.
But analysts also warned that increased pressure on the group could spark an angry reaction.
“I think one of the biggest threats the LRA are still able to pose is they know they’re cornered so they will kill and they will rape,” Okello said.