The communications chief for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony has surrendered, the country’s military said Wednesday, as the decades-long war on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) appears to be drawing to an end.
Major Michael Omona, who was kidnapped by the rebel group at the age of 12, returned to his hometown of Gulu in northern Uganda on Monday after 23 years in the militant group, Ugandan army spokesman Richard Karemire told AFP.
Omona, 35, served as the LRA’s senior radio operator and was personally in charge of Kony’s communications.
Michael Omona’s surrender to Ugandan forces in Central African Republic “shows the degraded capacity” of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, said Maj. Kiconco Tabaro, the Ugandan military’s deputy spokesman. Omona was in charge of communications for Kony.
The United States on Wednesday cited the weakening of the LRA for its decision to remove its military forces, which have included dozens of special forces, from the operation.
The U.S. will “transition to broader-scope security and stability activities that continue the success of our African partners,” the U.S. Africa Command said.
Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. One of his former commanders, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial at The Hague-based court.
The LRA began as a Ugandan rebel movement in the 1980s but at the peak of its powers was internationally known for its cruelty against civilians in Congo, Central African Republic and what is now South Sudan as well. In 2012, the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children made a highly successful online video highlighting the LRA’s alleged crimes, including the abduction of children for use as sex slaves or fighters.
But the LRA’s active membership has shrunk under pressure and is now under 100, according to the U.S. Africa Command.
Last week the U.S. Africa Command commander, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, declared the hunt for Kony largely over. Most of Kony’s top lieutenants are now off the battlefield, leaving the leader “irrelevant” and in survival mode, he said.
The latest to surrender, Omona, had been abducted by the LRA in 1994 and later became a high-ranking rebel and served as “chief signaler” for Kony.
It was not clear when the U.S. withdrawal would take effect, and the U.S. Africa Command did not respond immediately to questions Thursday.
The U.S. first deployed about 100 U.S. special forces as military advisers in 2011, and in 2014 sent 150 Air Force special operations members and airmen to assist African forces. At the time, their equipment included four CV-22 Osprey aircraft, two C-130 transport planes and two KC-135 refueling aircraft.
The U.S. withdrawal leaves Uganda’s military alone in the mission to shut down the LRA. Uganda currently has about 1,500 troops deployed under an African Union military mission to defeat the rebel group.
Ugandan military spokesman Brig. Richard Karemire said Thursday that Uganda is thankful for U.S. support over the years in efforts to defeat the LRA. Ugandan troops will not immediately pull out of the mission against the rebel group, he said.
AU defense chiefs were meeting Thursday on the fate of the mission.
Karemire insisted that Kony will be a cause for concern as long as he is still alive.