KAMPALA, Uganda — A key aide to warlord Joseph Kony has surrendered to Ugandan forces, the military said Thursday, shortly after the U.S. indicated it was pulling out of the international manhunt for one of Africa's most notorious fugitives.
Michael Omona's surrender to Ugandan forces in Central African Republic "shows the degraded capacity" of the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group, said Maj. Kiconco Tabaro, the Ugandan military's deputy spokesman. Omona was in charge of communications for Kony.
The United States on Wednesday cited the weakening of the LRA for its decision to remove its military forces, which have included dozens of special forces, from the operation.
The U.S. will "transition to broader-scope security and stability activities that continue the success of our African partners," the U.S. Africa Command said.
Kony, a former Catholic altar boy whose rebel movement aspired to rule Uganda according to the biblical Ten Commandments, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. One of his former commanders, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial at The Hague-based court.
The LRA began in the 1980s and at the peak of its powers was internationally known for its cruelty against civilians in Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic and what is now South Sudan. In 2012, the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children made a highly successful online video highlighting the LRA's alleged crimes, including the abduction of children for use as sex slaves or fighters.
But the LRA's active membership has shrunk under pressure and is now under 100, according to the U.S. Africa Command.
Last week the U.S. Africa Command commander, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, declared the hunt for Kony largely over. Most of Kony's top lieutenants are now off the battlefield, leaving the leader "irrelevant" and in survival mode, he said.
The latest to surrender, Omona, had been abducted by the LRA in 1994 and later became a high-ranking rebel and served as "chief signaler" for Kony.
It was not clear when the U.S. withdrawal would take effect, and the U.S. Africa Command did not respond immediately to questions Thursday.
The U.S. first deployed about 100 U.S. special forces as military advisers in 2011, and in 2014 sent 150 Air Force special operations members and airmen to assist African forces. At the time, their equipment included four CV-22 Osprey aircraft, two C-130 transport planes and two KC-135 refueling aircraft.
The U.S. withdrawal leaves Uganda's military alone in the mission to shut down the LRA. Uganda currently has about 1,500 troops deployed under an African Union military mission to defeat the rebel group.
Ugandan military spokesman Brig. Richard Karemire said Thursday that Uganda is thankful for U.S. support over the years in efforts to defeat the LRA. Ugandan troops will not immediately pull out of the mission against the rebel group, he said.
Karemire insisted that Kony will be a cause for concern as long as he is still alive.
Counter-LRA efforts should draw support from U.N.'s existing peacekeeping missions in Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan, A.U. commissioner for peace and security Smail Chergui told a meeting of A.U. defense chiefs Thursday.
"It is critical that Uganda and the African Union forces stay engaged and find Joseph Kony,"said Sasha Lezhnev of The Enough Project, which monitors LRA activities. "If the pressure on the LRA is released, Kony will regroup the rebels once again, and tens of thousands of lives will be at stake in this fragile region."