By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda's military said on Monday a commander believed to be the deputy to Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony may have been killed last year in Central African Republic where an African Union force is hunting the insurgents.
Okot Odhiambo is one of the LRA leaders indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity that the group has perpetrated in the nearly two decades of war against the Ugandan government.
There has been no independent confirmation of the reports of Odhiambo's death.
The group, which emerged in northern Uganda in the late 1980s, has moved its bases to the loosely governed border region of Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic, where analysts say it could rebuild amid the political chaos sweeping that country.
LRA fighters are known for using extreme violence, including chopping off limbs as a form of punishment, as well as raping young girls and abducting them for use as sex slaves. The AU taskforce hunting down the LRA is supported by about 100 U.S. Special Forces deployed in 2011.
Paddy Ankunda, spokesperson for Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF), said LRA fighter Bosco Ojara, who defected to the Ugandan military last month, had reported that Odhiambo may have died in October last year after sustaining injuries in an ambush by the UPDF in northeastern Central African Republic.
"He had learnt from some of his fellow fighters before his defection that Odhiambo was leading a group that we (UPDF) ambushed on 27 October last year," Ankunda told Reuters.
"According to what Ojara was told, Odhiambo was wounded and later died of his injuries," he said, adding the attack took place at dawn along River Ouarra.
NOT YET CERTAIN
Ankunda said the Ugandan military was not yet certain about Odhiambo's reported death but that, based on Ojara's account and on their own ongoing investigation, "there's a high likelihood that he (Odhiambo) died and was buried."
The State Department spokesman for Africa, Will Stevens, said the department was aware of reports that Odhiambo had been killed, but could not confirm this.
"The death of Odhiambo would be a historic blow to the LRA's command structure. It is clear that, despite the regional challenges, the AU Regional Task Force continues to make great strides toward ending the LRA threat," Stevens said.
"We believe it is critical that pressure continue to be
put on the LRA to prevent it from regrouping."
In November, the Central African Republic said it had been in contact with Kony, who has also been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and his fighters to urge them to surrender.
A 5,000-strong African Union Regional Task Force, supported by about 100 U.S. Special Forces, has been hunting Kony and his fighters. Most of them are thought to be hiding in jungles straddling the borders of Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.