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Originally published Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 7:52 AM

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Uganda Kony-hunting soldiers face jungle threats

For Ugandan soldiers tasked with catching Joseph Kony, the real threat is not the elusive Central Africa warlord and his brutal gang. Encounters with the Lord's Resistance Army rebels are so rare that Kony hunters worry more about the threats of the jungle: Armed poachers, wild beasts, honey bees, and even a fly that torments their ears.

Associated Press

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RIVER VOVODO, Central African Republic —

For Ugandan soldiers tasked with catching Joseph Kony, the real threat is not the elusive Central Africa warlord and his brutal gang. Encounters with the Lord's Resistance Army rebels are so rare that Kony hunters worry more about the threats of the jungle: Armed poachers, wild beasts, honey bees, and even a fly that torments their ears.

A soldier crossing the Chinko river in the Central African Republic on Wednesday was drowned and mauled by a crocodile, spreading terror among hundreds of soldiers who must camp near streams because they need water to cook food.

"A crocodile has just taken one of my men," said Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the top Ugandan commander of the anti-Kony force. He contorted his face, walked to a map and pointed to Chinko, one of several rivers that the Kony hunters have been stalking in hopes that the LRA might be there looking for water. But it is dry season these days, and the rivers are teeming with hungry crocodiles.

This week's crocodile attack was the second in two months, highlighting the perils of trying to catch a rebel leader about whom so little is known and who could be anywhere in this vast Central Africa jungle. There have been no signs of Kony in a long time, and the soldiers whose goal it is to catch him are in fact more likely to be killed by elephants and snakes whose paths they cross. Even honey bees can be a serious menace when they are migrating.

Soldiers told an Associated Press reporter who traveled with them through the jungles about a tiny black fly that persistently hovers around and even enters their ears, reducing their capacity for concentration. The soldiers can be seen shaking their heads violently, or desperately slapping their ears, but the flies keep coming in huge numbers. The soldiers look forward to night, when the flies go away.

A crocodile attack last month on the banks of the Vovodo river left a soldier with horrific injuries all over his body. He was later taken into intensive care in a Ugandan hospital.

"The man just survived that crocodile," Balikuddembe said. "It grabbed his leg and he poked it in the eyes. Then it left him, and as he ran away it came for his arm, then his buttocks."

Most Ugandan soldiers here remain hopeful that Kony, who last month became the focus of international attention after a U.S. advocacy group made a successful online video seeking to popularize his crimes, can still be caught despite the challenges.

Invisible Children's campaign wants 2012 to be the year Kony is caught, and the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor has said he thinks Kony will be arrested soon.

Foot soldiers involved in the manhunt say much the same thing. They hope. Their optimism hinges on the vast amount of time and energy they've spent looking for Kony that it would be self-defeating to give up now. So every day they patrol the jungle for several hours, even if they have spent months without encountering anyone who remotely resembles the enemy. Sometimes they come across suspicious footprints, but it is impossible to tell if they are the LRA's or those of a cattle-keeping tribe called the Ambororo.

"Who says it is easy to catch Kony? Let me tell you, Kony is not a grasshopper that's there waiting to be caught," said a Ugandan soldier, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter.

On a search through the jungle on Thursday, some 60 Ugandan soldiers walked 16 kilometers (10 miles) without meeting a single person. The soldiers had hoped to find at least a pond at their final destination, but they found none and had to harvest stagnant water between rocks to prepare food. At such times, the last thing on their minds is Kony.

Carrying their rations and arms on their backs, the soldiers moved through seemingly impenetrable forests, in which they have to cut down some trees and shrubs to make way. They then emerge to dry plains where the sun mercilessly beats down on them.

Kony, who has waged a decades-long campaign of murder and the abduction of children without espousing any political ideology, in 2005 became the first person to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The warlord then attempted to negotiate peace with the Ugandan government, but in the end refused to sign the final peace agreement over concerns his security would not be guaranteed if he left the bush.

He has since navigated the region's porous borders, moving first to a forested national park in eastern Congo, where in December 2008 an aerial raid backed by American intelligence proved too late, and later to the Central African Republic.

Last year President Barack Obama sent about 100 U.S. forces to help regional governments eliminate the LRA once and for all. There are American soldiers in the four African countries that have been terrorized by the LRA over the years: Uganda, South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic.

Nzara, in South Sudan, is the "hub" of the entire military operation against Kony, and there are operational bases deep inside the Central African Republic in Djema and Obo.

American troops stationed in South Sudan and the Central African Republic declined the opportunity to discuss their experience. Capt. Layne, who spoke for the rest of the group in Nzara, said they were under strict instructions not to talk to reporters, and even politely declined to give his first name.

Ugandan officials said the Americans have been helping with logistics and surveillance. They are not involved in the physical tracking of Kony, leaving some Ugandan soldiers to wonder why the Americans are here at all.

"Victory for us would be when we get Kony himself, (Okot) Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen and other senior LRA commanders," Ugandan military commander Balikuddembe said. "Since there is no front line, it is hunting."

Ugandan troops last encountered the LRA on March 8, when they engaged in a fight with about 30 rebels and injured one of them. That prisoner, and others captured or rescued before him, shared the kind of human intelligence that the Ugandan military depends on in the hunt for Kony.

Ugandan officials now know that Kony's forces are vastly degraded and unable to stage large-scale attacks, even if they have continued to attack civilians and conduct abductions in the Congo. Kony-hunters now know that the rebels move in very small groups and are always on the run. They also know that technology can only go so far in catching a rebel leader who now eschews it, instead using couriers to send out his messages.

But the officials do not really know where Kony is, and some rank-and-file soldiers suspect he may be as far away as the Sudanese region of Darfur.

"If we knew where Kony was exactly, we would have caught him," said Ugandan Pvt. Godfrey Asiimwe. "They give us coordinates for where the suspected enemy is, but by the time we get there he's already gone."

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