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Cattle Rustlers In War With Ugandan Army -Minister
The northeastern Karamoja region has long suffered banditry and inter-clan fighting fuelled by cheap, semi-automatic weapons flooding in from Somalia and other Horn of Africa countries.
But minister of state for defense Ruth Nankabirwa told reporters an ambush by Karamojong warriors on an army unit last month killing 14 soldiers would be taken as an act of war.
"This operation was a different one It was war on UPDF (Uganda People's Defense Forces)," she said. "The situation is no longer cattle rustling. I'm calling them enemies, we are engaging them."
This month the government signed an extension of a landmark truce with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, raising hopes of an end to a brutal 20-year insurgency in the north.
But aid workers warn that even if peace talks with the LRA end in a final deal, a surge in violence in neighboring Karamoja could derail efforts to draw a line under the volatile east African country's conflicts.
Army attempts to disarm Karamojong warriors in recent years have had little success. Many Karamojong re-armed after accusing the government of leaving them defenseless against neighboring tribes, particularly in Kenya, that engage in cattle rustling.
Last month, an attempt by the army to disarm a group of Karamojong ended with at least 14 soldiers being killed and others wounded in a shootout which the army said was a trap.
Local officials accuse the army of heavy-handed tactics in disarming Karamojong, and of carrying out torture and rape, fuelling anger amongst the warriors.
But Nankabirwa said the recent ambush was very organized.
"The enemy has changed tactics. They operate under strict command and control," she said.
But minister of state for the Karamoja region, Aston Kajara, said the government disarmament programme was working.
"Between January and October, 4,500 guns have been collected using this cordon and search method," he told journalists, adding that thousands of heads of cattle looted by Karamojong warriors had been seized and returned to their owners.
Kajara said the government would start branding cows to make them harder to steal.
The semi-arid Karamoja region is Uganda's least developed, with more hunger, less school enrollment and less infrastructure than any other.