Ugandan Rebels Kill Rangers in Garamba National Park

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 7, 2009 (ENS) - The headquarters of Garamba National Park in the village of Nagero, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, was attacked Friday by the Ugandan rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. Despite resistance by park rangers together with elements from the Congolese Armed Forces, numerous casualties and material damages occurred.

A first report says eight people were killed, including two park rangers and two wives of wardens, and 13 people were injured, most by bullets. The attack uprooted 3,500 local residents, according to United Nations sources.

Ten rebels were also killed in the battle that lasted four hours, Garamba Park authorities report via WildlifeDirect, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Kenya.

It will take several days before these figures are confirmed, once the management team has completed the final assessment.

Several essential headquarters buildings were destroyed, along with many items of transport and communications equipment, and stocks of fuel and food.

"The headquarters in Nagero are in a state of havoc," said Garamba Chief Warden Bernard Iyomi, who directed the resistance during the attack and who narrowly escaped death. "The heroic behavior of our rangers and wardens has prevented an even heavier death toll."

This attack was part of the three week old multinational assault on LRA strongholds in northeastern Congo, which by some accounts has gone wrong. The multinational military offensive against the LRA, which is sanctioned by the United Nations, has not been executed well, according to local media and sources on the ground.

Military and humanitarian assistance are being deployed to secure the area and to help the people displaced by the attack.

"We strongly condemn this attack launched by the LRA, and request the military authorities of the region and the international community to continue their involvement in solving this problem caused by the rebel group for so many years," said Cosma Wilungula, the head of the DRC government agency Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation. The ICCN is in charge of management and conservation of the country's protected areas.

"Our immediate concern is for the safety and wellbeing of our people, particularly those that are injured. Thereafter we will immediately begin rebuilding the administrative base and staff morale, both of which are essential for the continued management of this important park," said Peter Fearnhead, the executive director of African Parks Network, which manages Garamba National Park.

A private foundation based in Johannesburg, South Africa, African Parks officially assumed the management mandate for Garamba National Park on November 12, 2005, in partnership with ICCN.

Garamba National Park is located in Orientale Province, along the DRC's border with Sudan. The park was established in 1938 by Belgian royal decree as one of the first national parks in Africa and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. In 1996, Garamba was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Garamba National Park is surrounded by three game hunting reserves - Azande to the west, Gangala na Bodio to the south, and Mondo Missa to the east. The total area of the Garamba complex is 1,2427 square kilometers, which includes 4,900 sq. km. covered by the park itself.

The park's expanses of savannahs, grasslands and woodlands, interspersed with gallery forests along the river banks and the swampy depressions, are inhabited by elephants, giraffes, and hippopotamus. The park also has a small population of critically endangered white rhinos, of which only about 30 animals remain.

Forces led by Uganda and including Congolese and South Sudanese soldiers began bombing LRA bases in the park on December 14, 2008 after the rebel leader Joseph Kony again failed to sign a deal to end his rebellion against Uganda's government.

Although Ugandan and Congolese officials have said the offensive is going well, coalition forces have so far failed to locate Kony, who along with two deputies is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

In response to the coalition attacks, Kony's rebellion is now waging a campaign against local villagers. One person has described the outcome of the coalition's military offensive against the LRA as the equivalent of "stirring up a hornets nest."

To date, between 400 and 500 civilians have been killed in attacks in towns of Doruma and Faradje, which had been left undefended by coalition forces.

On Tuesday, the United Nations refugee agency reached the towns of Tadu and Faradje in Orientale Province.

Faradje, which lies 100 kilometers west of the DRC's border with Sudan and Uganda, was attacked on December 25-26, leaving over 70 people dead and displacing nearly 40,000 others. Those who fled the town and local organizations told the UN High Commission for Refugees that more than 80 women were raped during the two-day period.

UNHCR said that people in the district are shocked and traumatized by the attacks. "Our mission found Faradje pillaged and destroyed by fire," agency spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva.

According to UN estimates, more than 50,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since mid-December, on top of 50,000 others in the region who were displaced by an earlier escalation of clashes between September and November, 2008.

Redmond said the agency has received a preliminary report of another attack Monday on the village of Napapo which claimed up to eight lives. "An unknown number of people were reportedly kidnapped," he said, adding that there are reports that this incident has uprooted even more people.

The UNHCR team has met with local nongovernmental organizations and the newly displaced are currently being registered in Tadu, Faradje and neighboring villages.

Key needs include food, shelter and medicine, Redmond said. "However, the area remains highly volatile and insecurity is a key obstacle for access by us and other agencies."