The first batch of 130 soldiers arrived at Entebbe Air Force base last night, as the army insisted the failure to achieve the core objective of capturing or killing LRA leader Joseph Kony as planned does not mean Operation Lightning Thunder had flopped.
Speaking to Daily Monitor in Garamba, UPDF Spokesman Felix Kulayigye said, “From now onwards, the Congolese are pursuing this operation. And therefore, effective today [Sunday], there will be no more Operation Lightning Thunder on the part of UPDF so the Ugandans are to leave starting today. The withdrawal is expected to last eight days,”
The Deputy Chief of Defence Forces, Lt. Gen. Ivan Koreta, while receiving the new arrivals in Entebbe denied reports the DRC government kicked out UPDF soldiers who sought to stay on until achieving all objectives of its military however long the duration.
“We have signed an agreement with DR Congo and agreed to pull out our forces for international relations,” he said, “Congo has also agreed to continue the hunt for Kony and we will continue sharing intelligence information on LRA.”
The Air Force Chief of Staff, Col. Moses Rwakitarate, who led the returnees, said, “UPDF’s victory is not capturing Kony but failing the enemy’s normal operations. Therefore, Operations Lightning Thunder was a success because we have managed to kill many of Kony’s fighters and rescue over 300 abductees.”
In Garamba, the departure of the first batch of soldiers was preceded by a handover ceremony in which the Uganda Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Aronda Nyakairima, said the UPDF was leaving at a time the LRA is at “their weakest point we have ever seen”.
The DR Congo Chief of General Staff, Gen. Didier Etumba Longila, said, “We will continue hunting the terrorist Kony and his forces until they are neutralised”. The ceremony in Garamba was attended by Uganda’s Minister of State for Defence, Lt. Gen. Jeje Odongo and his Congolese counterpart, Charles Mwando, Congolese Minister of Interior Celestin Mbuyu, for Media Lambert Mende, Operation Commanders from the two countries and the head of MONUC, Alein Doss. However, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), whose participation in the operation that started in December was limited to patrolling their border, was not represented at the ceremony.
Maj. Kulayigye, told Daily Monitor although they had failed to capture or kill Kony, they had at least achieved two of the three major objectives of their operation; dismantling the LRA command structure, rescuing abductees and killing/capturing senior LRA commanders, all of which have combined to weaken the rebel group.
“This gives us confidence that the LRA’s ability to resurface is diminished as long as the operation continues. That is why our colleagues here are going to continue with the operation,” said Maj. Kulayigye, who added that Uganda’s only role from now on will be to provide the Congo army with intelligence that comes its way.
A top Ugandan diplomat in Kinshasa, who declined to be named owing to the sensitivity of the matter, rebutted allegations that President Joseph Kabila forced out the UPDF after coming under pressure from nationalist politicians jittery over the open-ended stay of Ugandan soldiers inside DRC - reminiscent of the infamous 1997-2003 invasion. “I don’t get the impression that Kinshasa did not want UPDF in the DRC, otherwise our troops would not have stayed in Garamba this long,” said the Ugandan embassy official.
Ugandan and Congolese officials said in Garamba that the decision to withdraw the UPDF from Garamba was reached by Presidents Museveni and Kabila during their recent meeting in Kasese.
Members of the Tripartite Plus regional grouping, perhaps believing a saturated air strike accompanied by surgical operation by ground troops could promptly decimate the LRA, authorised a one-month UPDF-led raid on the rebels, opening on December 14, last year. The military operation, which failed to compel LRA fighters to assemble at Ri-Kwangba so that their leader Kony would sign the Final Peace Agreement negotiated over two years in Juba, was extended until yesterday when the nearly 10, 000 Ugandan troops transferred responsibility of destroying the LRA to Kinshasa supported by Monuc.
President Museveni was due to meet former Mozambican President, Joachim Chissano, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for LRA affected last night to “update themselves on the issue of solving the issue of Kony.”
The State Minister for International Affairs, Henry Okello-Oryem, a former top member of the government team at Juba Talks, said last evening that, “President Museveni and his guest will try to identify whether there are initiatives that could be started to conclusively address the LRA insurgency.”
The UPDF withdrawal from the DRC wilderness, which began with the arrival at Entebbe Airport of the batch yesterday, could take a week or longer time.
Daily Monitor has been told that President Museveni’s son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba who headed the Special Forces on the Garamba mission returned home nearly three weeks ago, signaling a possible closure of the offensive.
Mr Nyekorach Matsanga, the leader of the LRA peace delegation who purports to be speaking on behalf of the rebels’ High Command, called Mr Chissano yesterday claiming he spoke with Joseph Kony at 4am on Saturday night and that the rebel leader declared his readiness to sign the final pact.
Mr Matsanga was told to inform the rebel chief to directly communicate with Mr Chissano or chief mediator and South Sudan vice President, Dr Riek Machar if he cannot call President Museveni to discuss the way forward. But Minister Okello-Oryem last evening dismissed Mr Matsanga who has repeatedly said Joseph Kony is for peace, as an unserious character.