KAMPALA, Jan 7 – A top commander of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel army has surrendered and is now in the custody of US forces, the Ugandan army confirmed Wednesday.
Ugandan army spokesman Paddy Ankunda said top LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and war crimes, gave himself up in Central African Republic.
He said Ongwen one of the last senior aides to LRA leader and warlord Joseph Kony who was still at large. The LRA have been blamed for the slaughter of over 100,000 people and kidnapping of more than 60,000 children during a three decade-long campaign across five central African nations.
“His surrender puts the LRA in the most vulnerable position. It is only Kony left standing,” Ankunda told AFP, adding that he had first surrendered to CAR’s Seleka rebels, before being handed over to US forces.
Ongwen is being held in the southeastern CAR town of Obo, close to the border with South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, Ankunda said.
“We are working out procedures,” he added, when asked about Ongwen’s immediate fate — including his possible transfer to Ugandan authorities or to The Hague-based ICC.
Ongwen, who is in his mid-30s, is accused of directing bloody campaigns in northern Uganda in the early 2000s where thousands were killed or abducted to be used as child soldiers or sex slaves, as well as carrying out attacks on civilians in DR Congo.
On Tuesday, officials in Washington said a man claiming to be Ongwen surrendered to American special forces who have been deployed in the hunt for Kony since 2011.
The US State Department accuses him of “murder, enslavement and cruel treatment of civilians”, and had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to his capture.
Long driven out of Uganda, small bands of LRA fighters now roam forest regions of CAR, DR Congo, Sudan and South Sudan. Kony, who claims mystical-religious powers, has long been reported to be based in the Sudanese-controlled Kafia Kingi enclave.
– Calls for justice –
Initially abducted by the LRA when he was a 10-year-old and forced to fight as a child soldier, Ongwen was quickly singled out for his murderous loyalty and tactical ability and rose rapidly through the rebel’s ranks, becoming a major at 18 and a brigadier by his late 20s.
Former fellow LRA child soldiers who fought with Ongwen — before they themselves surrendered under a government amnesty — said their ex-commander should be put on trial.
“None of the commanders should be pardoned,” said Richard Ojwang, who was seized by the gunmen and forced to fight.
“Ongwen should be brought to see the terrible things he and Kony did to us,” said 37-year old Ojwang, who now works as a carpenter in the northern Ugandan district of Gulu. “They abducted us and forced us to fight, the LRA killed my parents and friends.”
LRA victims have spoken of brutal initiation rituals, including biting and bludgeoning friends and relatives to death and drinking blood.
“What they did to us was unbelievable,” Susan Amoding told AFP, recalling how her childhood in Gulu was spent in fear of attacks by the fighters, who earned a grim reputation for slicing the lips and ears of their victims.
“They should be punished,” 31-year old charity worker Amoding added. “The LRA cannot compensate us for the suffering they inflicted when they abducted us, but the top commanders must be held personally responsible.”
Another victim, Julius Komakech, said he served under Ongwen in South Sudan.
“He was one of the most fearless commanders,” said Komakech, now a motorbike taxi driver in Gulu.
“It is the tail end of LRA. He was one of the few surviving top commanders. If Kony hears of the news about Ongwen capture he must be worried.”
LRA researcher Ledio Cakaj said he was “not sure” how big a blow Ongwen’s surrender was to the LRA command structure, noting that he had “been sidelined for a while”, but that it was “good news nevertheless.”