The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, November 12, 2006 in Ri-Kwamba, southern Sudan
Libreville (AFP) - Down, but not out, the guerrillas of the Lord's Resistance Army, led by one of Africa's most brutal militia leaders Joseph Kony, are holding on in the Central African Republic with support from the rebels who temporarily seized power last year.
"Each week, the LRA raids a village in the bush, steals, rapes, kills and kidnaps," said Guillaume Cailleaux, a coordinator with the US group Invisible Children.
Kony, who is sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC), is "still active" in the southeast of the Central African Republic (CAR) at the head of Africa's oldest surviving rebel group, responsible for eight to 10 incidents per month, Cailleaux said.
"But the LRA no longer has any political or religious vision. It is in survival mode ... and has never been so weak."
One of the factors keeping the group alive, said Cailleaux and other analysts, is the support of the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group that took power in the CAR last year for nine months.
The LRA first emerged in northern Uganda in 1986, where it claimed to fight in the name of the Acholi ethnic group against the regime of President Yoweri Museveni. But over the years the LRA has roved across the porous borders of the region.
It moved from Uganda to sow terror in southern Sudan before shifting to northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, finally crossing into southeastern CAR in March 2008.
Combining religious mysticism with an astute guerrilla mind and bloodthirsty ruthlessness, Kony has turned scores of young girls into his personal sex-slaves while claiming to be fighting to impose the Bible's Ten Commandments.
While battling the Ugandan government, he and a dwindling band of expert guerrilla fighters earned a grim reputation for the abduction of children and mutilation of civilians.
But under growing pressure, the LRA is now split up into small groups of five or 10 combatants, operating in the Haut-Mboumou province -- an immense territory where they are still tracked by the Ugandan army and around 100 members of US Special Forces.
They also take refuge across the border in DR Congo, where the Ugandan army said on Wednesday it had freed 45 women and children from the hands of the rebels.
- Hit by defections -
"The number of fighters carrying weapons is now estimated at between 180 and 220," said Cailleaux, but each militia cell is accompanied by captives forced to work as porters, cooks and sex slaves.
Defections have increased over the past few months to around four of five a month, according to Invisible Children.
"In 2003, the LRA had around 3,000 fighters, compared to 200 now. Every month, there are defections. The LRA is on the point of disappearing. And yet, it survives," said Jose Carlos Rodriguez, an expert on the movement.
"There are several reasons for this. First of all, Kony has an extraordinary ability to adapt. He knows how to change strategy according to circumstances."
Secondly, "they didn't choose southeastern CAR by accident: it's an ideal refuge, a territory as large as Rwanda and Burundi combined, forest-covered, with a population of barely 40,000".
The region is also close to the enclave of Kafia Kingi in neighbouring Sudan, where Kony has previously fled and can still count on the support of the dictatorial Sudanese regime, said Rodriguez.
- Seleka support -
Last but not least, the LRA has benefited in recent months from the backing of Seleka rebels, a mostly Muslim group that overthrew the CAR government in March 2013 and held power until it was forced out by international pressure in January.
Although Seleka's support for the LRA is "limited" and "opportunistic", said Rodriguez, there have been numerous contacts between the groups.
In November, the head of Seleka and then president of the country Michel Djotodia claimed he was "in the process of negotiating" Kony's surrender, but also revealed his government had given provisions, including food, to the LRA.
"There were certainly contacts between the former rebels and the LRA at Bakouma" in southeastern CAR, said Rodriguez. "These contacts were led by Seleka general Zaccaria Damani and Otto Ladeere of the LRA. They continued later."
"Seleka occasionally provides ammunition, medicine, food" to the LRA, confirmed Cailleaux.
This assistance is given in exchange for labour in mining areas, with LRA captives forced to work as "diggers" for the Seleka.
Seleka military chiefs would have seen the opportunity to gain a foothold in southeastern DR Congo, Rodriguez added.
The Ugandan army has reacted angrily to this collaboration and particularly to the arrival of a Seleka column in its southeastern province of Nzako at the end of June.
According to the official account of the incident, the Ugandan military opened fire after confusing the Seleka militia for the LRA.
Rodriguez said this was unlikely, saying the Ugandan army "knew perfectly well" what it was doing when it killed 16 Seleka rebels, including a colonel.