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Originally published April 29, 2012 at 7:11 PM | Page modified April 30, 2012 at 6:30 AM

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Endgame tricky in tracking down Joseph Kony in African jungle

The U.S. military believes Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel who led massacres in Africa, is using Stone Age tactics to elude pursuers, but "a persistent engagement" is in progress to find him.

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OBO, Central African Republic —

It has to be one of the oddest matchups in U.S. military history: 100 of America's most elite special-operations troops, aided by night-vision scopes and satellite imagery, helping African forces find a wig-wearing, gibberish-speaking fugitive rebel commander named Joseph Kony who has been hiding in the jungle for years with a band of child soldiers and a harem of child brides.

U.S. military commanders said Sunday they have been unable to pick up his trail but believe he is hiding in this country's dense jungle, relying on Stone Age tactics to dodge his pursuers' high-tech surveillance tools.

Kony, a Ugandan guerrilla who began his uprising in the 1980s, long ago ordered his followers to stop using radios and cellphones to avoid leaving an electronic trail. Nowadays, officials said, his 300 or so fighters rely on foot messengers and preset rendezvous points to communicate.

Kony's methods have proved effective, and although no one knows exactly where he is, here in Obo, at a remote forward operating post in the Central African Republic, U.S. troops pore over maps and interview villagers, searching for clues. Commanders warn that it could take years to find him.

Their biggest challenge, they say, is Kony's turf, a vast expanse the size of California in the middle of Africa that is so rugged it renders much of the U.S. gadgetry useless. Picture towering trees that blot out the sun, endless miles of elephant grass and swirling brown rivers that are infested with crocodiles; one of them recently ate a Ugandan member of the force.

"This is not going to be an easy slog," said Ken Wright, a Navy SEAL captain and the commander of the joint U.S. detachment assisting in the Kony hunt. "Knock wood, maybe we get lucky. But by experience this is going to be a persistent engagement."

Since October, U.S. troops have fanned out to five outposts in four countries, advising thousands of troops from Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo who are hunting Kony. About half of the U.S. contingent is based at a joint operations center near the international airport in Entebbe, Uganda. The rest of the troops are divided among four far-flung camps in Dungu, Congo; Nzara, South Sudan; and Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic.

Still, in the past several months since they arrived, the Americans say Kony's army is showing signs of cracking. No longer is Kony able to direct the massacres he led just a few years ago when his fighters waylaid entire towns and hacked hundreds of people to death.

His armed acolytes are breaking up into small, desperate groups, U.S. officials say, and for the first time they are abandoning many of the women and children they had abducted who cannot keep up as they flee deeper into the jungle.

U.S. advising in hunt

For the first time, U.S. military officials provided details of their hunt for Kony in extensive interviews over the past week in Africa and Europe. The interviews culminated Sunday with a visit to Obo, where the military arranged for journalists to arrive on chartered Cessnas, scattering stray dogs while landing on a makeshift dirt runway.

A team of about 20 Green Berets from the U.S. Army has set up camp in Obo. The military would not permit journalists to tour the U.S. camp, which villagers described as protected by razor wire and cameras, but granted interviews with the local U.S. commander and security forces from Uganda and the Central African Republic who also are based here.

The Americans said they rarely leave the vicinity and do not go on patrol, leaving it to their African partners to send trackers into the bush. Instead, they spend most of their days in meetings with African troops and local officials, guiding operations and offering technical advice.

The U.S. forces carry arms but are not permitted to engage in combat, except in self-defense. They said they have not encountered any of Kony's forces directly.

"We've had no assaults on any of our bases," said Wright, who oversees all five U.S. outposts. "It would be unwise for them to do that."

Their deployment is emblematic of the Pentagon's new military strategy for Africa, unfurled this year, in which Pentagon officials say they will develop "innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives on the African continent."

Already, U.S.-paid contractors and intelligence agents are working quietly in Somalia. And small groups of U.S. advisers have been training African armies for years, though it is not clear how well this always turns out. Just a few weeks ago, Mali's democratic government was ousted in a coup led by none other than a U.S.-trained army captain.

Yet no other U.S. military project in sub-Saharan Africa has generated the attention — and the high expectations — as the pursuit of Kony, partly thanks to a wildly popular video on Kony's notorious elusiveness and brutality, "Kony 2012," that set YouTube records with tens of millions of hits in a matter of days.

Gen. Carter Ham, the overall commander of U.S. forces in Africa, has a "Kony 2012" poster tacked to his office door. As one U.S. official put it: "Let's be honest, there was some constituent pressure here. Did 'Kony 2012' have something to do with this? Absolutely."

A trail of death

Kony started out in a northern Uganda village more than 25 years ago as a Catholic altar boy who spoke in tongues. People said he was a prophet. He went on to form a rebel force, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), bent on overthrowing Uganda's government and ruling the country with the Ten Commandments. Soon enough, though, Kony was breaking every one.

His fighters mowed down impoverished villagers, sawed off lips and kidnapped thousands of children, brainwashing them for use as tiny killing machines. Kony often donned wigs and costumes, saying he was possessed by spirits, including one named "Who Are You?"

Adye Sunday said she was 13 when she was taken from her bed by LRA fighters in the middle of the night, then spirited off to neighboring Congo for 10 years.

She said she had a son with Kony seven years ago. Her 3 ½-year-old daughter, Betty, was just a baby in 2010 when authorities in Congo attacked the LRA camp she was in. She was caught in the crossfire and shot in the leg as she went to grab the child.

Left behind by the LRA, she and her two children were picked up by the troops that attacked the camp and brought back to Uganda.

In 2006, Ugandan troops pushed Kony out of Uganda into the lawless borderlands where the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and what is now South Sudan meet.

By this point, Uganda had become one of America's closest African allies, and when the United States was deeply worried about Somalia's becoming a terrorist sanctuary, Uganda was the first country to step forward with peacekeepers.

In December 2008, the new U.S. military command for Africa, known as Africom, helped plan an attack on Kony's camp in Congo, dispatching a team of military advisers to Uganda.

But Kony escaped before the Ugandan helicopter gunships even took off — apparently he had been tipped off. Worse, his army slaughtered hundreds of nearby villagers in revenge, leaving behind scorched huts and crushed skulls.

Good place to hide

The U.S. government continued running a semicovert logistics and intelligence operation to extend the Ugandan army's reach so it could chase Kony across the region. The United States also pumped in more than $500 million in development aid to northern Uganda, turning a former battlefield into a vibrant piece of the Ugandan economy with new banks and hotels.

But many Americans, including the advocacy group Invisible Children, which produced the "Kony 2012" video, wanted more. They pressured Congress to pass the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010, which paved the way for President Obama to send in the Special Forces late last year.

One Army Green Beret officer based in Obo — Capt. Greg, who under ground rules with visiting reporters did not give his last name — said Sunday that he had spent the bulk of his time reviewing intelligence reports with Ugandan and Central African counterparts in an old brick house called the "fusion center."

"Different things pop up all the time," he said. "Everything from people asking us to fix their broken refrigerator to someone telling us about an attack that ends up not being the LRA or even an attack."

Another complication is the remoteness of the region, where even dirt roads are scarce. The Green Berets said they were bracing for nonstop rains in a few weeks, which will turn the ground into mud soup and make it difficult to reach Obo by road.

"All these little nuances we didn't imagine when we first got here are now rearing their head," Capt. Greg said.

U.S. officials believe Kony is hiding in an especially remote corner of the Central African Republic, though some Ugandan officials said he had moved into Sudan, with the blessing of the Sudanese government.

The Central African Republic would be an excellent place to hide. Its national army is one of the region's smallest and weakest. Its terrain is primordially thick. And its infrastructure is shambolic.

Because there are so few roads and telephones, it often takes weeks for news of an attack to reach the fusion center. By the time the Green Berets sift the information and help dispatch the Ugandan hunting squads, Kony is gone.

Attacking on the run

U.N. officials say Kony's forces have stepped up their attacks since the Americans arrived, with more than 130 this year, though the attacks tend to be small, often with no one killed.

About a week ago, Kony's fighters struck a village in Central African Republic and made off with the very material he needs to sustain his movement — several abducted children.

Kony often has said that all he needs is 10 men to regenerate.

This past week, Betty Bigombe, a Ugandan minister, revealed she had nearly worked out a deal in 2006 for Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, to be exiled to Libya — Moammar Gadhafi had agreed to take him. But in the end, Bigombe said, Kony backed away, saying he didn't trust Arabs.

As one U.S. official put it: "There's only one way this is going to end, and that's with Kony shot in the back, running for his life, deep in the forest."

Information from The Associated Press is included.

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