Military contingents from five East African countries have begun field training in disaster and emergency response as well as anti-terrorism in the northern Ugandan district of Kitgum.
"The joint field training being conducted in northern Uganda is expected to develop further the capacity of the East African Community's armed forces in humanitarian assistance; disaster relief management; and, to some extent, peace support operations, counter-terrorism operations, disaster management and crisis response," Beatrice Kiraso, the deputy secretary-general of the East Africa Community (EAC) in charge of the community's political federation, told IRIN.
Supported by the US army, the 10-day training is codenamed "Natural Fire 10" because it is the 10th time such exercises have taken place since their inception in 1998. It began on 16 October with contingents from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda participating. At least 550 US marine personnel and 133 military personnel from each of the five countries are taking part.
An LRA connection?
US military officials have dismissed speculation that Natural Fire is being held in preparation for a new offensive against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), whose rebellion has devastated northern Uganda, the Kitgum area in particular. In late 2008 the US was a partner with Ugandan troops in Operation Lightning Thunder, a botched attempt to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tens of thousands of civilians in the DRC, Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic have been displaced because of LRA activity.
Photo: Charles Akena/IRIN
|Senior army officers from the participating countries salute troops parading in Kitgum, northern Uganda|
According to long-time regional observer Peter Eichstaedt, author of First Kill Your Family - Child Soldiers in Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, the joint exercises convey a clear, if tacit, message to Kony. “That message being, of course, that a multi-national force of 1,000 - an effective number for a fighting force anywhere in the world - can be assembled in this strategic location with relative ease,” Eichstaedt wrote on his blog.
“Such a force would be a huge problem for someone like Kony, should he think about a return to northern Uganda. It shows that Uganda has allies who are willing not only to donate moral support and money in the fight against Kony and his maniacal militia, but are willing to put boots on the ground.
“This is an acknowledgement that Kony is much more than Uganda's problem, and has become a regional nightmare,” he writes.
While it makes no mention of the LRA, the US Army's Africa website says of Natural Fire: “By building capacity within partner nations and increasing our ability to work together, US Army Africa will be better prepared for future engagements. In doing so, the US Army also solidifies military rapport with allies in East Africa, key to supporting stability in the region.”
Kiraso said the training was taking place while the EAC was embarking on a new phase of strengthening regional integration even as the region faces "real and potential complex emergencies", which could translate into threats to socio-economic, cultural and political wellbeing of East Africans.
These threats, she said, ranged from natural to man-made disasters; poverty and disease; porous borders and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons; internal strife; and insecurity in states neighbouring the EAC.
"It is very important to develop the East African Community’s capacity to handle such emergencies and threats to peace, security and stability," Kiraso said.
Maj-Gen William B. Garrett, the commanding general, US Army-Africa and US Army-Southern European Taskforce, said the training would help build the capacity of East African armies in combating terrorism and responding to humanitarian catastrophes.
Ugandan army commander, Gen Aronda Nyakarima, said the LRA was no longer a threat to Uganda’s peace as the group was now in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Central African Republic. Regional cooperation, he added, was therefore required to get rid of the LRA.