Ugandan forces launch ‘hot pursuit’ as they blame the ISIL-linked Allied Democratic Forces for the deadly attack near DRC border.
The death toll in a deadly attack on a school in western Uganda’s Mpondwe town has risen to at least 40, with an unknown number of people abducted, according to the town’s mayor and local media reports.
The victims included the students, one guard and two members of the local community who were killed outside the school, Mpondwe-Lhubiriha Mayor Selevest Mapoze told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Mapoze said that while some of the students suffered fatal burns when the rebels set fire to a dormitory, others were shot or hacked to death with machetes. Police, however, did not expand on the nature of the attack or how the victims died.
Army spokesman Felix Kulayigye placed the death toll at 37. Eight people were injured and six others kidnapped, he said.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the details of the worst attack in Uganda in years.
Police earlier blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan group based in eastern DRC that has pledged allegiance to the ISIL (ISIS) group, for the attack. They said earlier that 25 bodies were recovered and eight victims, who remained in critical conditions, were transferred to Bwera Hospital.
National police spokesman Fred Enanga said “a dormitory was burnt and food store looted” in the attack on the privately owned school located in the Ugandan district of Kasese, about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the DRC border.
Enanga said the army and police units were in “hot pursuit” of the attackers who fled in the direction of Virunga National Park over the border into the DRC.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from Nairobi, said the area of the park had been cordoned off.
“People there are very afraid and there is a lot of anxiety and people don’t know what is going to happen next,” she said.
The military confirmed in a statement that Ugandan troops inside the DRC “are pursuing the enemy to rescue those abducted.”
Daniel Bwambale, a lawyer and expert on government affairs in Kampala, told Al Jazeera the attack was preventable.
“There is no reason why this attack should have taken place. There are air assets available, unmanned aerial vehicles, artilleries and most definitely enough personnel to pursue the ADF,” he said, blaming the authorities for failing to act on the intelligence.
‘Burnt beyond recognition’
Joe Walusimbi, an official representing Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in Kasese, told The Associated Press over the phone that authorities were trying to verify the number of victims and those abducted.
“All of the dead so far are confirmed to be students at the school,” he said. “Some bodies were burnt beyond recognition.”
Major General Dick Olum, the army’s commander for western Uganda in charge of a military deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said the attackers had stayed in the town two days before the attack, marking their target.
He said an unidentified youth had gone to the school to check its layout before the attack.
“That is how the attackers came and locked the boys’ door. The boys really tried to fight back, but they were overpowered. The attackers had lit mattresses,” Olum told reporters from Mpondwe, according to a video posted on Twitter by the Daily Monitor newspaper.
“In the girls dorm, they found their door open, hence killing them and cutting them.”
Winnie Kiiza, an influential former politician from the region and opposition leader, condemned the “cowardly attack” on Twitter.She said: “Attacks on schools are unacceptable and are a grave violation of children’s rights,” adding that schools should always be “a safe place for every student.”
The ADF is accused of launching many attacks on civilians in recent years, notably on civilian communities in remote parts of eastern DRC. In April, the group was blamed for an attack there that left at least 20 people dead.
Ugandan authorities for years have promised to track down ADF fighters “at home and abroad”.
The group is believed to have been responsible for killing 36 people in March during an overnight attack on the village of Mukondi, in eastern DRC.
Ugandan authorities also blamed the group for deadly suicide bombings in the capital, Kampala, in 2021 and launched joint air and artillery raids in the DRC against it. But the measures have so far failed to stop the ADF’s attacks.
The ADF, which the United States has deemed a “terrorist” group, is considered the deadliest of dozens of armed militias that roam mineral-rich eastern DRC. In March this year, the United States announced a reward of up to $5m for information leading to the capture of the ADF’s leader.
In 1995, the ADF was formed by a coalition of rebel forces – including the Uganda Muslim Liberation Army and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) – to fight against the Museveni administration.
Over the years, the group was backed by subsequent governments of DRC that were keen on subverting Rwandan and Ugandan influence in the country.
But in 2013, the ADF began attacking Congolese military targets, leading the army to fight back. Consequently, its leader Jamil Mululu fled to Tanzania in 2015, where he was arrested and extradited to his home country to stand trial on charges of terrorism.
In recent years, the ADF has been linked to the armed group ISIL and has referred to itself as the Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahideen – City of Monotheism and Holy Warriors (MTM).