By RODNEY MUHUMUZA, Associated Press
ENTEBBE, Uganda (AP) - The African Union says it will send 5,000 soldiers to join the hunt for notorious rebel leader Joseph Kony, a new mission that comes amid a wildly popular Internet campaign targeting the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army.
The mission is to be launched in South Sudan on Saturday and will last until Kony is caught, United Nations and African Union officials said at a news conference in Uganda.
"We need to stop Kony with hardware - with military hardware in this case," said Francisco Madeira, the African Union's special envoy on the LRA, on Friday. "We are on a mission to stop him."
Friday's announcement comes the same month an Internet movie campaign by the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children sought to make Kony "famous" so that policymakers would make it a priority to remove him. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times.
Abou Moussa, head of the U.N.'s office in Central Africa, said soaring international interest in Kony had spurred regional efforts to eliminate the LRA.
"The awareness has been useful, very important," he said.
The hunt for Kony has primarily been carried out by troops from Uganda, who received a boost last year when President Barack Obama deployed 100 U.S. forces to help regional governments in the mission. American soldiers are now based in Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Congo.
The LRA is responsible for 2,600 civilian deaths since 2008, according to the African Union.
The African Union mission, to be led by a Ugandan commander, will comprise troops from Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo, countries where Kony's reign of terror has been felt over the years.
The African Union's most prominent military mission is in Somalia, where 17,700 troops - primarily from Uganda, Kenya and Burundi - are fighting al-Shabab militants. The force has made strong gains over the last year, pushing insurgents out of Somalia's capital.
The AU's new focus on Kony dovetails with the Ugandan military's stance that catching or killing Kony would mean the end of the LRA. His forces were ousted from Ugandan territory in 2005.
The officials meeting in Uganda on Friday did not say where the funding for the mission was coming from but acknowledged that finding money was a problem.
Madeira said the coordinated deployment of African troops would "neutralize Kony" and isolate the LRA, whose men have split into in small groups. The LRA is thought to have only 200 to 300 soldiers in it. The group has forced many children to become child soldiers and porters and women and girls to become sex slaves.
Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is believed to be hiding in the Central African Republic.
Kony has stopped using technology like telephones, making it hard to track him down. Ugandan troops operating in the Central African Republic have recently encountered small outfits of the LRA, including a confrontation in which an LRA captain was injured and captured on March 8, according to Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the top Ugandan commander there.