Kasese, Uganda | By Michael Wandati | Over 40 people, mostly students of Lhubiriha Secondary School, in Mpondwe, Kasese district in western have been killed by suspected Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, linked to the Islamic State group (IS).
The victims include students, one guard and two members of the local community who were killed outside the school.
The school had 63 students in the boarding section. According to information from the school administration, the suspected rebels attacked the school at around 11:30 pm on Friday 16, June 2023 shortly after the students had returned from the evening preps.
Mary Musoki a teacher at the school said the gunmen who also carried other killer objects first stormed the school director’s home and demanded money from his wife who was alone at the time.
Shortly after, they stormed the male and female dormitories cutting their victims into pieces and shooting them. They later set a section of the school block on fire. Tai Ramadhan, the Bwera division DPC says they are searching for other students who are still missing.
By the time of filling this story, Army spokesman Felix Kulayigye in a statement released, placed the death toll at 37. Eight students were injured and are nursing injuries at Bwera hospital, another 3 were rescued alive and six others kidnapped.
He said that the UPDF and the police are pursuing the suspected rebels towards DRC’s Virunga National Park – Africa’s oldest and largest national park which is home to rare species, including mountain gorillas.
“Our forces are pursuing the enemy to rescue those abducted and destroy this group,” defence spokesperson Felix Kulayigye said on Twitter.
Militias including the ADF also use the vast expanse, which borders Uganda and Rwanda, as a hideout.
The Ugandan army has also deployed helicopters to help track the rebel group over mountainous terrain.
Some five suspected ADF rebels carried out the attack, burning the school buildings and looting the food store, the Ugandan army has said.
Major General Dick Olum, the army’s commander for western Uganda in charge of a military deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 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.”
Some of the boys were burnt or hacked to death, Maj Gen Dick Olum from the army told the media.
The ages of the victims are not known.
Some of the bodies are said to have been badly burnt and DNA tests will need to be carried out to identify them.
The attackers are said to have torched the students’ mattresses and are also thought to have detonated bombs in the region.
Photos of burning buildings at the school have circulated on social media.
Members of the wider community are possibly among the dead. A number of students remain unaccounted for and the exact number of those who died is still unclear.
Uganda Police Force 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.
The attack on the school, located less than two kilometres (1.25 miles) from the DRC border, is the first such attack on a Ugandan school in 25 years.
The attack brings fresh memories of the 1998 attack on Kichwamba Technical Institute in Kabarole district by ADF rebels. The rebels killed 80 students and also abducted more than 100 students during the attack.
On Monday 12, June 2023, more than 100 Congolese nationals entered Mpondwe-Lubiriha Town Council following suspected ADF attacks on local communities. Eight people are reported to have been killed during the attack.
The ADF was created in eastern Uganda in the 1990s and took up arms against long-serving President Yoweri Museveni, alleging government persecution of Muslims.
After defeat by the Ugandan army in 2001, the ADF relocated to North Kivu province in the DRC.
The group’s principal founder, Jamil Makulu, was arrested in Tanzania in 2015 and is in custody in a Ugandan prison.
ADF rebels have been operating from inside the DRC for the past two decades.
Makulu’s successor, Musa Seka Baluku, reportedly first pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2016, but it was not until April 2019 that IS first acknowledged its activity in the area.