Central African Republic's government said Thursday that Joseph Kony, an accused war criminal and jungle gangster who kidnaps men, women and children, is believed to be in a town in the country's remote southeast and has been talking with the president, but U.S. officials and others expressed doubt that reported talks represent a breakthrough in efforts to bring him to justice.
Central African Republic government spokesman Gaston Mackouzangba said Thursday that Kony is believed to be in the town of Nzako. None of the groups searching for Kony reported any indication that Kony was really there.
"The president said he had spoken with Joseph Kony by telephone who wants to lay down his arms," Mackouzangba told The Associated Press. "The negotiations are ongoing."
The American officials said they have "little reason to believe" that Kony himself is part of a group of Lord's Resistance Army members in talks with Central African Republic officials.
The U.S. State Department said Thursday it is aware that CAR officials have been in contact "for several months" with a small LRA group "that has expressed interest in surrendering." The U.S. said it's clear the LRA is facing significant pressure from African military forces hunting for LRA fighters and Kony
"At this time, we have little reason to believe that Joseph Kony is part of this group," the State Department said, adding that Kony and his senior commanders have used "any and every pretext to rest, regroup, and rearm, ultimately returning to kidnapping, killing, displacing and otherwise abusing civilian populations."
The Resolve, a U.S. aid group that carries out anti-LRA work, said the report of talks with Kony is based on a series of engagements between an LRA group near Nzako and local authorities. A few mid-level LRA leaders say they are interested in settling peacefully in the area, said spokesman Michael Poffenberger.
"They have referred to involvement from 'the big boss' but there has been no evidence of actual involvement from Kony in this process. On the contrary, there is some indication that the group may be acting independent of his direction," said Poffenberger, whose group helps run the LRA Crisis Tracker, a website that charts LRA attacks.
Past tales of Kony's surrender
The spokesman for Uganda's military also said Thursday that he's pessimistic that the reported contact with Kony or his fighters will bear fruit. Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said Uganda supports in principle any initiative by the Central African Republic to engage in talks with Kony, but he noted that it's the third time there have been reports of such efforts.
Uganda has about 2,500 troops working to find Kony in CAR and the surrounding region, Ankunda said. The U.S. has about 100 special forces stationed across central Africa who are helping advise in the hunt for Kony. The LRA leader was the subject of a viral video seen by more than 100 million people last year produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children.
The LRA, which originated in Uganda in the 1980s as a popular tribal uprising against the government, has waged one of Africa's longest and most brutal rebellions.