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KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — The fugitive African warlord Joseph Kony recently found safe haven in territory controlled by Sudan, a watchdog group said Friday, accusing the Sudanese military of offering aid to commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army.
The U.S.-based group Resolve said in a new report that Kony recently directed killings from an enclave protected by the Sudanese military. Until early this year, according to the report, Kony and some of his commanders were operating in Kafia Kingi, a disputed area along the Sudan-South Sudan border where African Union troops tasked with catching Kony don't have access.
"The enclave is currently controlled by Sudan, and numerous eyewitness reports indicate that elements of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in Kafia Kingi have actively sheltered senior LRA commanders there and provided them with limited material support," the report said. "According to LRA defectors and other sources, LRA leader Joseph Kony himself first traveled to the Kafia Kingi enclave in 2010. He returned to Kafia Kingi in 2011 and was present there throughout parts of 2012."
In a series of makeshift camps near a Sudanese army barracks, Kony "continued to direct LRA attacks against civilians in neighboring countries and issue new orders for LRA fighters."
The Ugandan military — with support from U.S. military advisers — is the driving force behind the hunt for Kony. Ugandan army spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye said the report vindicates Uganda's contention that the LRA is a beneficiary of Sudanese support. Ugandan army officials said late last year they believed Kony was hiding in Sudan-controlled territory, although now they believe he has moved elsewhere.
"We always knew Kony was hiding in Kafia Kingi," he said. "The way forward is that no country should be hiding a wanted criminal."
Kony watchdog groups are concerned that Kony can retreat to Kafia Kingi whenever his pursuers get close. Resolve said it has satellite imagery of the now-abandoned camp where Kony was reportedly seen in late 2012. The warlord is no longer believed to be hiding there, the report noted, saying he may have crossed to Central African Republic.
Sudan has consistently denied charges it supports Kony, a warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Sudan's army spokesman Sawarmy Khaled denied reports on Friday that his country has provided shelter or refuge to Kony.
"The report is baseless and rejected. The Sudanese army has no renegade leaders. It is a united army and has no place for individual acts," he told the official state news agency SUNA. "The Sudanese army has no interest in adopting or sheltering rebels from other countries."
The United States government is evaluating the report that the LRA is operating in the Kafia Kingi region, said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell Friday.
"The U.S. and the international community as a whole would take very seriously any credible evidence of support or safe haven being provided to the LRA," said Ventrell, citing a December statement at the U.N. expressing concern about the LRA's possible presence in Kafia Kingi.
"We continue to discuss our concerns about the whereabouts of Joseph Kony with all governments in the region, including with the government of Sudan, and we have encouraged Sudan to cooperate with regional efforts to counter the LRA," Ventrell added. "We're in a position now where two of the top five commanders are gone, the number of people killed by the LRA has gone down by 66 percent, and defections continue. So our pressure on the LRA continues."
Kony's LRA, which originated in Uganda in the 1980s as a popular tribal uprising against the government, has become notorious for recruiting children as fighters and forcing girls to be sex slaves. Military pressure forced the LRA out of Uganda in 2005, and the rebels scattered across parts of central Africa. LRA fighters are now believed to be operating mainly in the jungles of Congo and Central African Republic.
Ugandan Brig. Dick Olum, the top commander of African forces hunting for Kony, recently said he believed Kony had crossed to Central African Republic, where last month rebels deposed a president and expressed hostility toward foreign troops operating in the country. The lack of cooperation from the new government there forced the African Union to suspend military operations against Kony, who over the years has taken advantage of porous borders and weak governments to regroup.
The LRA is vastly diminished from previous years, and its forces now don't exceed 500, according Brig. Olum. Many of Kony's fighters have defected in the past year, and some of his top lieutenants have been captured or killed in combat. Last year an LRA commander believed to be Kony's military strategist was seized by Ugandan troops.
Sudan's support for Kony threatens progress made against the LRA, said the new report by Resolve.
"Unless addressed, it will also enable LRA leaders to outlast current counter-LRA operations," the report said. "Though international diplomats and military officials working to stop LRA attacks privately acknowledge recent LRA movement in Kafia Kingi, they have not adopted realistic strategies to prevent further support from Sudan to Kony's forces."
Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report