One of Africa's most feared militias, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has carried out a campaign of mass abductions on both sides of the remote border between the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to a human rights monitor.
Dozens of villages have been attacked, looted and burned, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed, while villagers have been tortured, their skulls crushed with clubs. Survivors have been tied up and marched into the jungle in human chains to serve as sex slaves, porters or fighters for the group. One-third of the nearly 700 civilians taken were reportedly children.
"The LRA continues its horrific campaign to replenish its ranks by brutally tearing children from their villages and forcing them to fight," said Anneke Van Woudenberg of the New York-based watchdog. "The evidence points to Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, as the author of this atrocious campaign."
The messianic cult began as an ethnic uprising against the government in Kampala but was pushed out of Uganda into DRC in 2005. Since then, the LRA has foraged along the inaccessible border areas of Congo, South Sudan and CAR and even as far as southern Darfur last year.
International concern over the group prompted the US Congress to pass a bill in May aimed at curbing their activities in central Africa. The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act calls on the Obama administration to devise a strategy with local governments for ending the violence.
Uganda led a regional military campaign against the militia last November, but Operation Lightning Thunder failed to end the killings or capture the LRA leadership. Soon afterwards the dispersed militia fighters carried out an apparent revenge massacre in Makombo, northern Congo, killing 345 people. A similar spate of killings a year earlier left 865 people dead.
The failure to tackle the LRA is blamed by regional governments on the impossibility of policing remote jungle areas. Officials in southern Sudan accuse the northern leadership in Khartoum of backing Mr Kony in order to destabilise their southern flank. Some opposition figures in Uganda have questioned the commitment of President Yoweri Museveni to ending the LRA's activities – accusing him of using the threat of the militia as cover for internal repression.
The LRA operates in small, self-contained units and has become adept at living off the land, emptying civilian areas, pillaging entire districts for basic supplies and enslaving civilians on a huge scale. Captured children are often forced to kill their own parents, while those who are too weak for forced labour or high-speed marches are clubbed to death to save bullets. Thousands of women and children have been used as sex slaves by the group's leadership.
One 12-year-old Congolese girl said she was forced to participate in killing dozens of adults used to porter stolen goods to an LRA camp, to prevent them from revealing its location. "The LRA tied the hands of the victims behind their back, a cord around their legs and placed the victims face down on the ground," she told HRW. "Then the LRA would give us children a heavy wooden stick and force us to beat them on the head till they died."
The UN's peacekeeping mission in DRC has been called on to increase its protection of civilians. Past efforts to negotiate the surrender of the LRA have foundered on international insistence that the leadership must be arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face trial for crimes against humanity.
Gentle boy to Psychopath
* The self-styled "prophet" Joseph Kony is an elusive and terrifying figure. Born in 1961, he inherited his mantle as leader of the Acholi people from his aunt, a mystic who started a rebellion in Uganda. Although it initially enjoyed popular backing, the rebel LRA long ago lost support after a brutal and incoherent campaign to "purify" the Acholi and turn Uganda into a theocracy ruled by the Ten Commandments.
* Kony has nurtured a cult of personality, claiming he is visited by a multinational host of 13 spirits, including a Chinese phantom. Former abductees speak in awed terms of his "magical powers". He is said to have taken up to 60 wives and fathered countless children.
* A school dropout described by former classmates as a "gentle boy" and a "brilliant" dancer who liked football, he became a traditional healer before taking up arms against the Ugandan government in 1988, following in his aunt's footsteps.
* He has since become one of the most sadistic leaders in Africa. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity.