No timetable for Uganda mission
Washington - The US special forces being deployed to central Africa to help hunt down the leaders of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army have no specific timetable to accomplish their mission, senior US officials said on Tuesday.
Alexander Vershbow, a top Pentagon official, assured lawmakers that the deployment would probably last no more than "months" and was limited to aiding regional militaries to gather and use intelligence more effectively to target the elusive rebel force.
But some of the estimated 100 special forces would be operating on the front lines - possibly in small combat units - with regional militaries and would be armed and authorised to use their weapons in self-defence.
"We don't have a specific timetable. We're talking months, but I wouldn't put a number on it at this point. But we will be reviewing the operation in a few months to see whether it is achieving the desired effect," Vershbow said.
President Barack Obama notified Congress October 14 that he was sending about 100 troops to train and advise African forces with the goal of capturing or removing the leaders of the LRA, a Ugandan rebel group notorious for using children as fighters or as sex slaves and porters.
LRA rebels are accused of terrorizing, murdering, raping and kidnapping thousands of people, and tens of thousands of people have died in their 20-year war with security forces in northern Uganda.
A key target of the US operation is Joseph Kony, the group's messianic leader who is believed to be ensconced in the jungles of Central African Republic with a force that US officials say numbers only around 200 fighters and a total 800 followers.
They have dispersed from northern Uganda in small, hard to locate units in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, where they have carried out a series of deadly attacks over the past two years.
While a 2010 law requiring a US strategy to dismantle the group gained broad bipartisan support in the US Congress, some lawmakers expressed concern at a hearing on Tuesday about the potential for mission creep in an open-ended deployment.
"I have a lot of anxious moments about whether or not the number of troops won't grow to 200-300 or even more," said Representative Donald Manzullo, a Republican from Illinois.
Vershbow and Donald Yamamoto, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, were also peppered with questions about the cost of the deployment, but were unable to provide an estimate.