Ugandan troops accused of plundering trees in Sudan

Ugandan troops looted truckloads of valuable trees from south Sudan when they were pursuing Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels who were hiding in the region, a research group said on Friday.

The Swiss-based Small Arms Survey said the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) cut teak trees in southern Sudan’s Equatoria region during Operation Iron Fist, which had been approved by the Khartoum government.

Local officials cited in the new report said the Ugandan forces failed to confront the LRA insurgents during the operation in southern Sudan and were instead involved in logging.

“From an economic perspective, keeping the war alive has become part of the lucrative economy for the army. Locals regularly reported that the UPDF cuts down teak trees to take them to Uganda,” the group said in a report titled The Lord’s Resistance Army in Sudan: A History and Overview.

Even during the withdrawal of the UPDF from southern Sudan under the terms of a government-LRA truce agreement signed in August 2006, “the UPDF cut down about 200 trees in Palataka and carried them across the border before they were reported to authorities,” it said.

The Palataka area in Eastern Equatoria is heavily forested with teak, a tropical hardwood used mainly in building ships and manufacturing outdoor furniture. The wood is valuable because it has natural oils that make it water resistant.

A local southern Sudan administrator quoted in the report said: “The UPDF are business-minded people, they are logging timber in the Acholi area. Who gives them permission?”

Uganda signed an agreement with Khartoum in 2002, allowing the country to deploy forces to pursue and flush out LRA insurgents from the heavily forested region.

“Since the UPDF came to Sudan, they have never had a face-to-face confrontation with the LRA. It is like the LRA have given them safe passage,” the report quoted a local Sudan official in Magwi county.

“People wonder why the UPDF is here … the UPDF should be asked politely to leave,” the official added.

But the Ugandan army flatly rejected the claims and said the Small Arms Survey had strayed from its primary focus.

“That is incorrect,” army spokesperson Major Felix Kulaigye said in Kampala.

“The research was meant for small arms. How did it stray out and go to the teak tree. I think this is just to speak out so that they can attract funding,” Kulaigye added.

“Our duties are to look for rebels in southern Sudan to maintain law and order along the road. How can we look for timber?” the report quoted a UPDF officer as saying.

Human rights groups and aid workers have accused the Ugandan army and LRA rebels — at war since 1988 — of attacking villages in southern Sudan.

In 2005, the United Nations accused Rwanda and Uganda of siphoning off profits from an illicit trade in gold, diamond and timber from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where they had deployed troops supporting rebels during the 1998 to 2003 war in the DRC.

Experts accused 54 people — including more than 20 senior military and political officials in Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and the DRC itself — of leading “elite networks” that exploited DRC natural resources. — AFP

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