Kampala – Uganda on Wednesday denied accusations by an American human rights group that its recent offensive against rebels in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo had left innocent civilians unprotected.
Human Rights Watch says that no thought was given to the protection of civilians during the three-month offensive mounted by Ugandan, Sudanese and Congolese forces against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in DR Congo’s north-eastern Garamba National Park.
Agencies estimate that over 1,000 people were massacred in revenge attacks by the LRA and tens of thousands were displaced as a result of the operation, which began in December.
Witnesses say that the LRA pulled people out of their homes and churches and killed them with clubs and machetes in retaliation at the attacks on its bases.
“Human Rights Watch’s accusations are based on short term results and observations but not on the basis of the whole process,” army spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye told the German Press Agency dpa.
“During the operation, we rescued more than 350 people who had been abducted by the rebels,” he said. “By doing this, we protected civilians and destroyed (LRA leader Joseph) Kony’s capacity to kill people.”
The UN peacekeeping force in DR Congo (MONUC) has also come under fire for failing to prevent the LRA’s reprisal attacks.
The LRA rebels fought a decades-long civil war that left nearly two million people displaced, thousands dead or mutilated and similar numbers abducted in northern Uganda. The rebels fled to DR Congo in late 2004 after being forced from southern Sudan.
The offensive was mounted after the LRA continued to refuse to sign a final peace treaty, after nearly three years of peace talks which began mid-2006.
HRW also accused the Ugandan government of using a paramilitary spy agency to illegally arrest and torture more than 100 rebel and terrorist suspects in the Ugandan capital Kampala over the past two years.
The rights body told the government to take “prompt action” to end what it called the unlawful arrest and torture of suspects.
In the 89-page report, the organization said that the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JATT) has over the past two years targeted Muslims suspected of having links with groups like al-Qaeda.
JATT was formed several years ago to fight anti-terrorism in the country and comprises police, army and other security personnel.
“JATT detains and beats suspects and holds them for months without contact with family or lawyers,” HRW’s Africa director Georgette Gagnon said. “Uganda conveniently uses the broad mantle of anti-terrorism to abuse and torture suspects.”
HRW said that several detainees had died under torture.
Kulayigye denied the accusations and said that the military was “totally against torture.” (dpa)