Hundreds of terrified internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Uganda walked warily along the road from Barlonyo camp, 26 km north of Lira on Monday, fleeing towards the nearby Ogur trading centre, where several thousand who had earlier escaped the latest rebel attack were already encamped.
Barlonyo camp, where the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels killed at least 200 IDPs on Saturday afternoon, was deserted. Rows of huts lay smouldering alongside burnt water cans, bicycles and personal effects. The stench of burning ash was thick in the air.
Alfred Komakech, a local militia guard at the camp, told IRIN that the rebels had out-gunned his Amuka militia guarding the camp, before setting at least 50 huts on fire. Most of those killed were burnt inside the huts. "They were armed with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], LMGs [light machine guns], and other weapons that we did not have," he said.
On Monday, the Catholic church said the death toll from the attack had risen to 213 after 40 more bodies were discovered in a field 3 km from the camp. The church news service, Misna, said the bodies had been discovered by local people returning to the scene on Sunday morning.
President Yoweri Museveni, who has battled the LRA for 18 years, issued a statement blaming the incident on weaknesses within the command structure of his army. Museveni, who was expected to visit the area on Monday, said a local army commander had allowed a loosely guarded, unofficial IDP camp to be set up in the area. He disputed the death toll, saying only 84 people, 80 of them civilians, had died.
But Charles Angiro, the area of member of parliament who visited the scene on Sunday with local security officials, told reporters in Lira, 380 km north of the capital, Kampala, that he had personally counted 192 bodies in the camp, many of them badly burnt.
The attack, the most devastating on civilians in northern Uganda for nearly 10 years, occurred when about 300 LRA rebels, dressed like regular Ugandan army soldiers and armed with assault rifles and artillery, attacked the camp and overpowered the local Amuka militia posted there to protect it, Father Sebhat Ayele, a Roman Catholic priest who visited the scene shortly after the attack told IRIN. "The estimate of the dead that we have is now over 200," Ayele said.
Survivors of the massacre told IRIN at Lira Referral Hospital that the rebels had stormed the camp at about 17:00 GMT. They fired a recoilless gun into a barracks housing the 35-strong Amuka militia guard contingent before moving into the camp, which prior to the attack housed 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. The rebels abducted some IDPs, though it was unclear whether they were among those found killed later.
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 rebels, led by a reclusive mystic, Joseph Kony, say they want 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.