---- — NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The United States is aware that authorities in the Central African Republic are in contact with a unit of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army but American officials "have little reason to believe" Kony is part of the group, the State Department said Thursday.
The African Union envoy in charge of pursuing the LRA told journalists at the U.N. Wednesday that Central African Republic President Michel Djotodia told him that he and his people have been in contact with Kony, an accused war criminal and one of the most hunted men in the world, and "they want to encourage him to surrender."
Ambassador Francisco Madeira also said reports indicate that Kony is seriously ill.
The State Department said Thursday that U.S. authorities are aware that CAR officials have been in contact "for several months" with a small LRA group in the Central African Republic "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, but that it doesn't believe Kony is part of the group talking about surrender.
"However, many times in the past, Joseph Kony and his senior commanders have used — and we believe will continue to use — any and every pre-text to rest, regroup, and rearm, ultimately returning to kidnapping, killing, displacing and otherwise abusing civilian populations," the State Department said.
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 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 viral video seen by more than 100 million people last year produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children.
Uganda's military is the principal player in the multi-country hunt for Kony, a brutal jungle gangster who kidnaps men, women and children, forcing some to become fighters and others to become sex slaves. 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.
The U.S. military's Africa Command says the LRA has "murdered, raped and kidnapped tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children" and that more than 380,000 people across three African countries have been displaced while fleeing the violence. The State Department is offering a $5 million reward — up to $15 million total — for help in the arrest of Kony and two of his lieutenants.
Madeira said pressure from the African Union's regional task force composed of some 3,000 African troops in addition to the American advisers has led to "a good number" of defections by Kony's followers. He said he expects the number of defections to increase, eventually leaving Kony only with top LRA commanders who along with him are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The State Department said that nearly 100 men, women and children have successfully left the LRA since 2012. U.S. military advisers work with the African Union Regional Task Force and local communities to encourage and facilitate defections from the LRA.
"We will continue to welcome those who are serious about putting down their arms and surrendering," the State Department said.
Associated Press reporter Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.