Operation Iron Fist agreement renewed amid tensions

Sudan and Uganda have agreed to renew a bilateral agreement that gives the Ugandan army access to southern Sudan to carry out limited operations against the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The agreement was extended by three months on Friday despite allegations that the Sudanese army was supporting the Ugandan rebels in southern Sudan.

"The agreement has gone ahead as planned. The fact that we are saying Sudan has reneged on it does not affect the signing of the protocol itself," army spokesman Maj Shaban Bantariza told IRIN.

The protocol allows the Ugandan army access to southern Sudan within the framework of "Operation Iron Fist", a campaign it began in early 2002 with the aim of crushing the rebel group. This is the eight time it has been renewed. The renewal comes at a time when the two countries are involved in increasingly bitter exchanges over whether some members of the Sudanese armed forces are supplying the Ugandan rebels with food, weapons and ammunition.

At the official signing in Uganda’s military headquarters in Bombo, outside Kampala, Chief of Military Intelligence Col Noble Mayombo said Khartoum must make greater efforts to stop LRA fighters and officers from establishing safe havens in the region. He also said Sudan was failing to share vital intelligence with Uganda concerning the LRA. "We have information that rebels have set up new camps in southern Sudan and this intelligence we did not get from them [the Sudanese], which is a violation of the protocol," he said.

On Thursday Sudan’s ambassador to Uganda, Sirajuddin Hamid Yousif, told the BBC's Focus on Africa that Khartoum was disappointed that the Ugandan government and media were willing to readily believe the testimony of former LRA fighters - the main basis for the accusations.

But Uganda’s army has countered that the reports from former rebels show remarkable consistency. "These reports are all independently saying the same thing," Bantariza told IRIN. "So, on the contrary, they [the Sudanese] need to give us a reason why we should not believe it."

Ugandan and Sudanese government officials have agreed to meet in October to discuss the allegations. "A delegation is being sent to Khartoum next month to discuss all these things," Bantariza told IRIN. "Until then, we will simply continue to catalogue our evidence."

Some 15,000 foot soldiers backed by tanks, artillery and two fully adapted attack helicopters have been deployed in southern Sudan under Operation Iron Fist. However, the campaign has failed to end the LRA insurgency in spite of several deadlines set by the Ugandan government, and has indirectly caused the worst humanitarian situation the region has ever seen. It has led to large numbers of the LRA returning to northern Uganda, where they have stepped up their attacks against civilians. Many people have been killed in the attacks, in which villages have been looted and an increasing number of children kidnapped. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.