Ugandan troops have crossed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as part of a joint operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group that both neighbouring countries accuse of massacring civilians.
The two countries said early on Tuesday the group, the deadliest of dozens of militias plaguing the DRC’s mineral-rich east, had been bombarded with artillery and air raids. Ugandan army spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso said in a statement that “targets were accurately hit”.
Later, large numbers of Ugandan soldiers entered the DRC at the Nobili border post in North Kivu state, a United Nations source and an aid worker told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a column of very well-armed troops on foot, followed by armoured vehicles,” the aid worker said.
Video shared on social media also showed advancing soldiers whose uniforms bore the Ugandan flag.
It came as the DRC’s government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said the two sides had decided to cooperate further.
“It was agreed after an assessment to continue in-depth operations by the special forces of the two countries to clear the positions of the terrorists concerned,” he said on Twitter late on Tuesday.
DRC army spokesman Leon-Richard Kasonga said in a statement that “for the time being, Congolese special forces supported by Ugandan special units will carry out search and control operations to clear and secure ADF positions affected by this morning’s strikes.”
“This part of eastern DRC is thick with forest,” said Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, who has reported extensively from the region.
“It’s so thick that when you take a step off the dirt roads, it can even be impossible to get through this vegetation. It’s within these forests that the ADF has its hideouts and hidden bases. It’s very difficult terrain to hunt down an armed group that’s using guerilla tactics – and that’s one of the reasons why previous attempts to flush out the ADF has struggled.”
The most recent such bid on the part of the Congolese government was in May, when it placed the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri under a “state of siege” to step up a military offensive against the fighters, with soldiers replacing civil servants in key positions.
Witnesses had earlier reported explosions and artillery fire in North Kivu’s Watalinga district, as well as the Boga and Tchabi districts – known hideouts of the ADF in neighbouring Ituri province.
“There is a real panic here at home, especially because we were not informed of this situation,” resident Julien Ngandayabo told the Reuters news agency. “We have suffered too much with the ADF, who have massacred our families. We are waiting to see if this is the solution.”
The attacks came two days after a senior Congolese source reported that President Felix Tshisekedi had given Uganda permission to pursue the ADF on DRC’s soil.
The move is not universally supported in the DRC, where many critics recall the role of Uganda and Rwanda in the decades-long instability in the east of the country.
The ADF is deeply feared in eastern DRC. The group was founded in Uganda in 1995 and later moved to the DRC. In March, the United States formally linked it to ISIL (ISIS).
“ADF is a vicious organisation that killed thousands of people in eastern DRC, after it was properly pushed out of Uganda,” Chatham House analyst Alex Vines told Al Jazeera.
The DRC’s Catholic Church says the ADF has killed about 6,000 civilians since 2013 while a respected monitor, the Kivu Security Tracker, blames it for more than 1,200 deaths in North Kivu’s Beni area alone since 2017.
The Ugandan authorities recently accused the ADF or a local group affiliated with it of carrying out or planning attacks.
On November 16, four people were killed and 33 wounded in twin suicide bombings in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, which police attributed to a “domestic terror group” linked to the ADF.
The blasts, claimed by ISIL (ISIS), came on the heels of a bomb attack at a roadside eatery on October 23 that killed one woman, and a suicide blast on a bus near Kampala on October 25 that wounded several people.
In late October, the Ugandan police said they had arrested suspected ADF members, who they believed were plotting a new attack on “major installations”.
Uganda has also blamed the ADF for a foiled bomb attack in August on the funeral of an army commander who led a big offensive against the al-Shabab armed group in Somalia.
Three men were charged with “terrorism” on November 5 in relation to that incident.