Rebels massacre more than 200 in Lira IDPs camp

In the most devastating attack on civilians in northern Uganda for nearly 10 years, rebels who have waged war in northern Uganda for 18 years, massacred at least 200 people in an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp on Saturday, eyewitnesses said.

Three bodies of those who died later at Lira referral hospital were being loaded by relatives on to a small truck on Monday morning to be taken for burial, while other injured IDPs were being treated by medical staff. Sam Ekomu, a survivor of the massacre, told IRIN his three cousins were among the dead.

Father Sebhat Ayele, a Roman Catholic priest who visited the scene shortly after the attack told IRIN that about 300 Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, dressed like regular Ugandan army soldiers and armed with assault rifles and artillery, had attacked the Barloonyo camp, 26 km north of Lira town, and overpowered the local Amuka militia posted there to protect it.

"The estimate of the dead that we have is now over 200," Fr Ayele told IRIN in Lira town, 380 km north of the capital, Kampala, on Monday morning.

Survivors of the massacre told IRIN at the hospital that the rebels, stormed the camp at about 17:00 GMT. They fired a recoilless gun into a barracks housing the 35 Amuka militiamen before moving into the camp, which houses 4,800 IDPs and is sited in the bush off the main road.

Most of the IDPs who died, the survivors said, were burned alive when the rebels set fire to their thatched huts after ordering them into their houses at gunpoint. Others trying to flee were shot, bludgeoned or hacked to death by rebels wielding clubs, machetes and AK-47s.

Molly Auma, 26, told IRIN that the rebels had opened fire at her hut, forcing her to run outside with her 10-months-old baby. Once outside, the rebels shot at her, hitting the child. She ran towards another hut, but the rebels fire-bombed that hut. "I survived because they thought I had died," she said.

The rebels also reportedly abducted some IDPs, though it was unclear whether they were later killed or taken captive. Abductees, especially young children, are often taken by the LRA for forcible recruitment into their ranks as fighters, porters or sex-slaves.

A number of bodies remained burning in their huts by Sunday morning, eyewitnesses said, while 50, burned beyond recognition, were buried in a mass grave. Some 60 injured IDPs were evacuated to Lira Referral Hospital in critical condition.

The attack comes barely three weeks after rebels massacred around 50 people in Abia camp, also in Lira District. Like the Saturday incident, the Abia camp attack occurred at about 17:00 GMT.

The army said the remaining IDPs were going to be evacuated and transferred to camps closer to Lira town. The army spokesman, Maj Shaban Bantariza, was unable to confirm the death toll, but said that "the rebels had superior weapons. The Amuka have not yet had the training to use similar firepower. They were out-armed."

Bantariza said the Uganda People’s Defence Forces in the area were tracking the rebels in the bush. The attack, he added, was "most likely an attempt to distract them back from there, as well as to intimidate the Amuka and terrorise the civilian population".

The cult-like LRA, led by a reclusive mystic, Joseph Kony, say they want to topple the government, which is dominated by southerners, and restore power to the Acholi people in the north. Yet most of the group’s atrocities are committed against defenceless civilians, usually fellow Acholis.

Kony claims to have magic powers derived from the Holy Spirit, and manipulates beliefs in witchcraft to instil fear in his followers. Virtually all LRA recruits are abducted children who are brainwashed by fear and forced to commit violent acts.

The biggest LRA slaughter of civilians on record happened in 1995 in Atiak, north of Lira, when some 240 people were herded into a corner and shot dead.