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Uganda government hunts rebels after massacre

Uganda dispatched forces to the north of the country on Monday  in pursuit of rebels who killed more than 200 unarmed civilians seeking shelter at a refugee camp.
Ugandans on Sunday walk around the burnt-out remains of houses in a displaced persons' camp in Barloonyo, northern Uganda, after a rebel attack.New Vision / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Government forces swept through villages in northern Uganda on Monday in pursuit of rebels who killed more than 200 unarmed civilians seeking shelter at a refugee camp.

The army clashed with a small group of rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army on Sunday, killing one insurgent, said 2nd Lt. Chris Magezi of the Ugandan army.

The rebels, armed with assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, raided Barlonyo camp north of the town of Lira late Saturday, shooting people as they fled and burning others in their mud and grass huts. It was one of the worst attacks in recent years by the shadowy group, which has been fighting the Ugandan government for 17 years.

Camp officials calculated that 206 civilians were killed, at least six of whom died of their wounds in a hospital, said Charles Angiro, a parliament member representing the region.

Army spokesman Maj. Shaban Bantariza said army officers in the region had told him 84 people were killed. But he said he was receiving conflicting figures.

It was not possible to contact the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is led by Joseph Kony, who claims to have spiritual powers.

Who's winning the war?
Survivors said more than 100 of the rebels dressed in camouflage walked in single file toward the camp, then fanned out when a whistle sounded, first attacking members of a local defense force protecting the camp, then targeting civilians as they cowered in their homes.

One survivor, George Okot, winced in pain as he recalled the massacre.

“When they came I ran inside the hut, then they started shooting,” said Okot, wincing in pain at a hospital in Lira. “When we tried to run outside the hut, they would shoot you, when you remain inside, they burn you.”

The violence raised questions about the Ugandan government’s claims that it is defeating the rebellion by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, which says it wants Uganda to be governed by the Ten Commandments.

The hospital in Lira was packed with wounded, some lying on the floor and crying in pain. Two badly burned young boys sat quietly as doctors treated them.

Angiro, who has been critical of President Yoweri Museveni’s government, said the army was deliberately playing down the death toll and had tried to prevent him from entering the camp after the attack.

“They are always hiding the figures of casualties from the war, they always make sure that the figures they give to the public do not indicate they are weak,” he said.

1 million displaced
The camp, 16 miles north of Lira, was home to about 5,000 people who were among the 1 million people who have fled to camps because of the insurgency. When the camp was attacked, most people headed to the safety of towns and villages, officials said.

The camp had been guarded by members of a local defense force, but they were outnumbered and outgunned.

Magezi, the regional army spokesman in Lira, 155 miles north of Kampala, said it was one of the worst rebel attacks since 1995, when rebels rounded up more than 300 villagers in Gulu district and slaughtered them, he said.

The rebel group, which has wreaked havoc across northern and northeastern Uganda, rose from the remnants of a revolt by soldiers from the Acholi tribe after President Museveni, a southerner, seized power in 1986 after leading his own five-year bush war. The Acholi is the dominant tribe in northern Uganda.

The group replenishes its ranks with children it abducts to use as fighters, porters or concubines. Estimates of the group’s size range from hundreds to a few thousand.