At least 42 killed and some abducted in rebel attack on Ugandan school near Congo border

Students were among the dozens killed in the attack, as Vincent McAviney reports

Suspected rebels linked to the Islamic State Group (IS) attacked a secondary school in western Uganda, killing at least 42 people, most of them students.

The bodies have been recovered by Ugandan authorities from Lhubiriha Secondary School in the border town of Mpondwe, following the attack on Friday night.

Police say the rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), who have been launching attacks for years from their bases in volatile eastern Congo, killed 39 students who were in their dormitories at the time.

Some were burned beyond recognition and others were shot or hacked to death after militants armed with guns and machetes raided the school in the frontier district of Kasese, a local mayor told The Associated Press.

Mayor Selevest Mapoze also said those killed included one guard and two members of the local community who were shot outside of the school.

Lhubiriha Secondary School was targeted in the attack. Credit: AP

Firefighters were still tryin to extinguish the blaze on Saturday morning, and authorities still expect to find more dead bodies.

A Ugandan military statement said six students were abducted by the rebels, who fled across the porous border into Congo.

Speaking to reporters near the scene of the attack, the commander of Ugandan troops in Congo said the rebels spent two nights in Kasese before carrying out their attack. He gave no further details.

ADF rebels, when under pressure, "divert" their pursuers' attention by splitting into small groups that then launch violent attacks in other places, said Maj. Gen. Dick Olum, suggesting the latest attack was an attempt by the rebels to ease battlefront pressure.

Relatives grieve as they wait to collect the bodies of villagers who were killed. Credit: AP

"A typical ADF signature," he said, "because this is pressure. They are under huge pressure, and that's what they have to do to show the world that they are still there, and to show the world that they can still do havoc."

The school raid, which happened around 11:30pm, involved about five attackers, according to the Ugandan military.

Soldiers from a nearby brigade who responded to the attack found the school on fire, "with dead bodies of students lying in the compound," military spokesman Brig. Felix Kulayigye said in a statement.

Security forces drive past a crowd of people gathered outside the Lhubiriha Secondary School. Credit: AP

The ADF has been accused of launching many attacks in recent years targeting civilians in remote parts of eastern Congo. It rarely claims responsibility for attacks.

The ADF has long opposed the rule of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a U.S. security ally who has held power in this East African country since 1986.

The group was established in the early 1990s by some Ugandan Muslims, who said they had been sidelined by Museveni's policies.

At the time, the rebels staged deadly attacks in Ugandan villages as well as in the capital, including a 1998 attack in which 80 students were massacred in a town not far from the scene of the latest attack.

Relatives ride in the back of a truck with the coffins of villagers. Credit: AP

A Ugandan military assault later forced the ADF into eastern Congo, where many rebel groups are able to operate because the central government has limited control there. The group has since established ties with the Islamic State group.

In March, at least 19 people were killed in Congo by suspected ADF extremists.

Ugandan authorities for years have vowed to track down ADF militants even outside Ugandan territory. In 2021, Uganda launched joint air and artillery strikes in Congo against the group.

Condemning the latest attack, United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres said that 'those responsible for this appalling act must be brought to justice'.

Extending “heartfelt condolences” to victims and their families, he called for the immediate release of those abducted and reiterated “the importance of collective efforts to tackle cross border insecurity between Congo and Uganda and restore durable peace in the area”.

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