On April 26, American special forces began pulling out of the Central African Republic, where they were deployed in 2011 to help hunt the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) warlord Joseph Kony.
The move, which was announced in March, will see US troops move out of the country’s east where they have been helping Ugandan forces track down rebels from the feared LRA.
One of Africa’s longest-surviving rebel groups, the LRA has terrorised parts of central Africa for 30 years.
Several years ago it counted several thousand fighters but today has fewer than 100, with the rebels spread across parts of CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan.
Since it was set up by Kony in 1987, the LRA has slaughtered more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children who were forced to become sex slaves and soldiers, UN figures show.
In 2011, Washington sent in around 100 US troops to eastern CAR to help regional forces hunt down Kony, adding another 150 special forces airmen three years later.
But in March, the United States Africa Command (Africom) said it would be wrapping up the
operation, which has cost between US$600 and $800 million, even though Kony remains free.
“This operation was a significant success,” Jeffrey Hawkins, the US envoy to CAR, said in early April.
Ugandan troops, who have been in eastern CAR since 2009, are also withdrawing from the area.
Last week, the army said the mission to neutralise the LRA had been “successfully achieved” and that Kony “no longer poses any significant threat” to Uganda’s national security.
Although his power is much diminished, Kony remains at large.
According to Paul Ronan of the US-based pressure group Invisible Children, which was behind an explosive 2012 video highlighting Kony’s atrocities and calling for his capture, the warlord is believed to be either in Sudan or CAR.
Kony launched his bloody rebellion in a bid to overthrow the Ugandan government and impose a regime based on his own version of the Ten Commandments. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, where one of his commanders, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial.
Last month, General Thomas Waldhauser, head of Africom, confirmed US operations were drawing to a close. He said there were only about 100 LRA rebels and that the mission had “essentially taken that group off the battlefield.”
“Everywhere, in cafes, people are talking about the departure of the Ugandan and American troops,” said a resident of Obo, a town in CAR’s southwest.
On April 17, around 6,000 people in the town took to the streets to demand that both sets of troops stay in place until they can be replaced by Central African forces.
Although there are UN peacekeeping forces in Central Africa, very few of them are in the east of the country.
“Even though we are officially ending the so-called counter-LRA mission, we are certainly aware of the fact that we don’t want to leave a void there,” said Waldhauser.
And he said Washington would continue to offer support to African troops in the form of both “training” and “intelligence”.