US troops hunting LRA warlord Kony begin C.Africa pullout

Libreville (AFP) - US special forces on Wednesday began to pull out from Central Africa, ending a five-year hunt for brutal LRA warlord Joseph Kony, who is wanted for crimes against humanity.

The departure of the troops sent in to support an African Union regional force "will be completed a short while after it begins on April 26", Charles Prichard, spokesman for the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), told AFP.

"A small contingent of US military personnel will continue to work in the area to complete logistical tasks... such as removing equipment. Those tasks will be completed by September 2017," he added.

In late 2011, Washington deployed about 100 special forces to the Central African Republic to back up Ugandan soldiers tracking Kony, and 150 special forces airmen were added three years later.

One of Africa's longest-surviving rebel groups, the Lord's Resistance Army has terrorised parts of central Africa for 30 years.

Since being set up by Kony in 1987, it is accused of slaughtering more than 100,000 people and abducting 60,000 children who were forced to become sex slaves and soldiers.

After counting several thousand fighters a few years ago, it now has fewer than 100 dispersed across parts of the CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan.

Last month AFRICOM said it would wrap up the operation, which has cost $600 million to $800 million, even though Kony remains at large.

- LRA 'in survival mode' -

"The time has come to move forward because the organisation itself is really in a survival mode," said General Thomas Waldhauser, head of AFRICOM.

Ugandan troops began to withdraw on April 19, saying that the mission to neutralise the LRA had been "successfully achieved" and that Kony "no longer poses any significant threat".

A self-styled prophet, Kony launched his bloody rebellion in a bid to overthrow the Ugandan government and impose a regime based on his own version of the Ten Commandments.

He is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, where one of his commanders, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial.

Analysts as well as residents of eastern CAR fear that the departure of US and Ugandan forces will leave a security vacuum, enabling the LRA to resurface.

Although there are UN peacekeeping forces from its MINUSCA mission in Central Africa, very few of them are present in the east of the country.

"This withdrawal will lead to a renewal of LRA attacks in the southeast," warned Thierry Vircoulon, a specialist on central Africa at the French institute for international relations IFRI.

But US spokesman Prichard said "AFRICOM remains committed to our partners in the region and will continue to work with them to find solutions to security challenges in the region."