STUTTGART, Germany — Though a U.S. military-backed offensive against a band of Ugandan rebels has fallen under criticism for being poorly executed and leading to several hundred civilian deaths, blame for the slaughter should be directed at the rebel group that butchered as they fled Ugandan defense forces, according to a senior U.S. Africa Command leader.
Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, a longtime diplomat and AFRICOM deputy who reports directly to commander Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, said the mid-December attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army also has diminished the rebel group’s ability to abduct children who are forced to serve as fighters.
"I don’t think [the offensive] caused the atrocities or casualties. I think the atrocities and casualties of the LRA constituted the military action that the [Ugandan army] decided on their own that they wanted to take," said Yates, who serves as AFRICOM’s deputy to the commander for civil-military activities.
Seventeen advisers from AFRICOM worked with Ugandan officers on the mission, providing satellite phones, intelligence and fuel, the New York Times reported in a Feb. 7 article that first brought the massacre to light.
Some humanitarian agencies, however, have questioned the tactics used by the Ugandan troops. Critics have argued that not enough was done to protect civilians from the LRA rebels, who hacked, bludgeoned and bayoneted their way through nearby villages as they fled the joint military operation involving troops from Congo, Uganda and Sudan.
Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA formed in 1989 and has sought to overthrow the Ugandan government and replace it with a system based on its own self-styled version of Christianity. In the process, the rebels have abducted thousands of boys over the years to serve as its fighting force. Girls are abducted to serve as sex slaves.
But U.N. envoy John Holmes was among critics who earlier this week blamed the latest slaughter in eastern Congo on the military offensive.
"The humanitarian consequences of the operations against the LRA have been catastrophic," Holmes told The Associated Press.
Humanitarian agencies have estimated that some 900 civilians were killed in the aftermath of the offensive, which involved the Ugandan air force bombing five rebel bases in northeast Congo. AFRICOM’s most recent count put the number of casualties at 600.
While critics contend that the attack simply scattered the rebels, Ugandan army spokesman Capt. Deo Akiiki on Monday defended the offensive, which he said succeeded in destroying rebel base camps and food supplies.
Akiiki also said Kony’s deputy was ready to surrender and the rebels have been scattered into smaller groups, disrupting their ability to coordinate.
AFRICOM became involved in the planning of the mid-December mission after the Ugandan government approached the U.S. embassy there and made a request for support. The decision to provide military advisors was authorized by President George W. Bush in November, the Times reported.
While the advisers provided resources and advice, AFRICOM officials say it was a Ugandan mission that would have occurred with or without the U.S. assistance.
"[The Ugandans] made a decision. They asked for our support, and we’re building the partnership to help try and address some of these conflicts and bring stability. We assisted and it’s too early to bring a final judgment," said Yates during an interview at AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart.
As a result of the operation, Yates said some of the LRA’s abductees were able to escape and a number of rebels were killed, she said.
"The base was disrupted and they were using that base in the past to launch their operations and abduct more children," Yates said. "The pressure is on."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.