By Erikas Mwisi Kambale
BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo carried out joint air and artillery strikes against an Islamic State-linked militia in eastern Congo on Tuesday, both countries said, vowing to continue working together to secure the targeted area.
The strikes targeted the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia, which has been based in Congo since the late 1990s and is accused of killing hundreds of villagers in raids after it pledged allegiance to Islamic State in mid-2019.
IS has in turn claimed responsibility for some of the ADF's violence, including a string of recent bombings in Uganda https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/who-are-islamic-states-affiliates-central-africa-2021-11-16, but United Nations researchers have found no evidence of IS command and control over ADF operations.
In separate statements, the Congolese and Ugandan armies said they had allied to target ADF positions in Congo with air strikes and artillery.
"The targets were accurately hit and operations against the terrorists will continue as we look for other targets of opportunity during ground operations," Ugandan army spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso said in a statement.
Congo government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said the two sides had decided to cooperate further.
"It was agreed after an assessment to continue in-depth operations by the special forces of the two countries to clear the positions of the terrorists concerned," he said on Twitter late on Tuesday.
The joint offensive is the first time Uganda has publicly intervened against the ADF in Congo since a brief campaign https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-uganda-military-congo-idUKKBN1EG1F2 in December 2017.
A local official and a resident said they heard explosions on Tuesday morning in Watalinga territory, North Kivu province, in the borderlands of eastern Congo.
"There is a real panic here at home, especially because we were not informed of this situation," said resident Julien Ngandayabo. "We have suffered too much with the ADF, who have massacred our families. We are waiting to see if this is the solution."
At around 4:15 p.m. (1415 GMT), Fabien Malule, a resident of the Congolese border town of Nobili, said he saw many Ugandan troops enter Congolese territory with their weapons.
"Today it is really a joy for some inhabitants here in Nobili. For me personally, as we have suffered too much, I prefer to wait for the result of their fight," Malule said.
A Congo army spokesman, Antony Mwalushay, said three ADF fighters were killed and three wounded during intense fighting at the Semuliki bridge, which connects the city of Beni to Uganda. One Congolese soldier was killed, he added.
A triple suicide bombing in the Ugandan capital Kampala on Nov. 16, which killed seven people, including the bombers, was the third Islamic State has claimed in the east African nation.
Ugandan authorities reacted by declaring that they could enter Congo to hunt down the militia in self-defence.
Underpaid and poorly disciplined, Congo's army would have difficulty in seriously degrading the capabilities of the ADF alone, said J. Peter Pham, former U.S. envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes regions of Africa.
"(But) any presence of foreign forces risks considerable blowback politically and, if sustained over any amount of time, even strategically," Pham told Reuters.
Uganda's response risks triggering a wave of retaliatory attacks against civilians and stoking regional rivalries, analysts said.
(Reporting by Ayenat Mersie, Elias Biryabarema, Erikas Mwisi Kambale, Fiston Mahamba, Stanis Bujakera, David Lewis and Hereward Holland; Writing by Hereward Holland and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich)