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Website showing African rebels' movements attracts interest

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 18, 2011

STUTTGART, Germany — Just hours before the White House on Friday unveiled its plan to send 100 military advisers to the region, LRA fighters were in a clash with local security forces in the small Congolese village of Napopo. One Lord’s Resistance Army member was reportedly killed.

A few days earlier, LRA fighters also struck in the nearby city of Bangadi, where security forces fled as the rebels went on a looting rampage. Some 300 civilians were forced to flee the area.

Such incidents happen virtually every week across a remote border region in Africa, where roving LRA fighters prey on vulnerable civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Now, thanks to a new initiative that maps the movements of the LRA, information about attacks is getting blasted out in real time online. Launched last month by U.S.-based advocacy groups Invisible Children and Resolve, LRACrisisTracker.com is intended to serve as an early-warning system about the movements of the LRA.

It’s already attracting interest from U.S. military personnel, according to those involved in the initiative. The tracker also could potentially serve as an information gathering tool for U.S. special operators whose jobs will be to provide strategic guidance and support to local militaries.

“Certainly, people have expressed a lot of interest. The beauty of the tool is its public access,” said Paul Ronan, co-founder of Resolve, an organization that has long advocated for more U.S. engagement in efforts to neutralize the LRA. “If [the crisis tracker] contributes to apprehending Joseph Kony (the LRA’s leader), that would be great.”

In a letter to Congress, President Barack Obama stated last week that about 100 U.S. advisers would be “providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces.” The troopers will be armed for combat, but will not engage with LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense, Obama said.

The initial team of advisers is in Uganda, but if requested, could travel to field locations to interact with and advise other forces actively pursuing the LRA, according to George Little, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Ugandan military, which also has peacekeeping forces deployed in Somalia, is widely recognized as one of the most professional forces in the region, and functions as a key player in the international effort to hunt down LRA leadership.

In 2010, the Obama administration released a strategy that committed the U.S. to helping civilians threatened by the LRA, which formed more than 20 years ago in Uganda and has become a destabilizing force in the region. Some activists have been critical of the implementation of the congressionally mandated plan, which until now has lacked on-the-ground American leadership.

“This is probably the most substantial step the (Obama) administration has taken so far and is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Ronan.

According to the LRA crisis tracker, 953 civilians have been killed since 2009 because of the LRA. Another 1,791, many of them children, have been abducted.

LRACrisisTracker.com includes a digital map, breaking news feed and regular data-analysis reports that chart attack patterns. It gathers reports of attacks from a local early-warning radio network supported by Invisible Children as well as data from local aid organizations and on-the-ground research. The technology should help ensure faster responses to attacks and potentially forecast when new ones might occur, Ronan said.

The tool was developed in response to a massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009, in which 321 civilians died but which took three months for the international community to learn about, according to Resolve.

“The response time to LRA atrocities should be three hours, not three months,” said Michael Poffenberger, Resolve’s executive director.

vandiverj@estripes.osd.mil

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