Hundreds of Ugandan troops cross into Congo as offensive widens


FILE PHOTO: Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) soldiers rest next to a road after Islamist rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) attacked area around Mukoko village, North Kivu province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Hundreds of Ugandan soldiers in armoured vehicles crossed the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, two witnesses said, as a joint offensive against an Islamic State-linked armed group appeared to expand.

Late on Tuesday Congo said special forces from both countries would be deployed to secure bases belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia, which had been targeted by air and artillery strikes earlier in the day.

The campaign takes place after months of lobbying of regional governments by President Felix Tshisekedi, whose own efforts to end the decades of bloodshed in Congo's east have been stymied by poor planning, corruption and insufficient funding, according to a parliamentary report.

On Wednesday morning Ugandan troops and vehicles were seen crossing into Congo at the Nobili border post for the second day, a local resident and civil rights activist said.

"I have just seen 30 vehicles full of Ugandan soldiers entering Congo. I also saw two tanks," said Blaise Bokassa, who lives in Nobili. "If our army collaborates with (the Ugandan army) a solution will be found, and the history of the ADF will be consigned to the past."

Faustin Baraka Baswegy, a member of a civil rights group in Nobili, said he also saw troops enter Congo in the morning.

"I have seen many vehicles with hundreds of Ugandan soldiers," he said.

A Ugandan army spokeswoman said she could not immediately comment. Congo's government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said he had no further information, but has scheduled a news conference for later on Wednesday to provide an update on the joint operation.

The ADF, which started as an uprising in Uganda but has been based in Congo since the late 1990s, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in mid-2019, but United Nations researchers have found no evidence of IS command and control over ADF operations.

ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES

Little is currently known about the scope and duration of the operation, said Nelleke Van de Walle from the Brussels-based thinktank International Crisis Group.

However, it appeared to be more ambitious than the last time Uganda's army attacked the ADF in Congo in 2017, when it said it killed 100 fighters in air strikes.

Although welcomed by some, it has also provoked unease in both capitals because of the Ugandan army's conduct during Congo's 1998-2003 civil war, for which Kinshasa is seeking billions of dollars of reparations. Uganda has called the amount ruinous.

"We fear we could see the same illegal activities that happened during the past deployment, stealing gold and those other commodities," Joel Ssenyonyi, a Ugandan opposition lawmaker, told Reuters.

"They needed parliamentary permission so we can debate why they need to go there. Is there a legitimate justification or are they going there to steal again?"

(Reporting by Erikas Mwisi Kambale, Elias Biryabarema and Hereward Holland; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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