Rebels drag pupils into holy war

REBELS of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda have kidnapped scores of schoolchildren in the last two months in a bid to use them as human shields against government soldiers.

So far, thousands of people have been killed in northern Uganda since the LRA, which wants to rule the country according to the biblical Ten Commandments, launched its campaign 14 years ago, and nearly 500,000 have fled their homes.

Scores of pupils were abducted on July 11 when 200 heavily armed rebels struck a displaced person's camp in Gulu district in northern Uganda and took away 60 children aged between 10 and 16 years, most of them pupils of nearby schools.

Earlier the rebels attacked Iceme girls school and abducted about 80 people including three teachers and an unknown number of pupils. However, a military operation rescued 60 people, among them two teachers and three pupils. During the attack, the rebels invaded a nearby Catholic mission, burned a church, several other buildings and four vehicles, before government troops rushed to the scene. According to Father Sabath Ayele, the rebels found the priests praying and started shooting and forced some people, including pupils, to carry looted goods.

However, a military spokesman, Lieutenant Paddy Ankunda, said government troops repulsed the rebels before they did much damage or abducted more pupils. "We engaged them and forced them to flee to their hideouts in the Gulu hills," he said.

The attacks come at a time when the Ugandan army has deployed 10,000 troops in northern Uganda and southern Sudan in an attempt to defeat the rebels that had been fighting the government of Yoweri Museveni since 1988. For several months now, the government has deployed troops in boarding schools in northern Uganda to protect pupils. However, this has not discouraged the rebels from attacking schools in the area.

These attacks have dampened government optimism that Operation Iron Fist, the offensive against LRA bases in southern Sudan and northern Uganda, has dealt a severe blow to the rebels.

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