NAIROBI, Kenya — Central African Republic's government said Thursday that Joseph Kony, an accused war criminal hunted by African troops and U.S. advisers, is believed to be in the country's remote southeast and has been talking with the president. U.S. officials and others expressed doubt the reported talks represent a breakthrough in efforts to bring him to justice.
Kony, who has been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity, has evaded capture for decades and was the subject of viral video seen by more than 100 million people last year produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children. His fighters with the Lord's Resistance Army are known for hacking off the lips and ears of their victims, and turning young girls into sex slaves.
Reports over the years have claimed that the brutal jungle gangster was hiding in Sudan's Darfur region or in a remote corner of volatile Central African Republic, where LRA fighters have killed at least 33 people since January and abducted more than 100 others.
Central African Republic government spokesman Gaston Mackouzangba said Thursday that Kony is now 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 by telephone with Joseph Kony who wants to lay down his arms," Mackouzangba told The Associated Press. "The negotiations are ongoing."
The government also said it had sent medicine to Kony at his request. The African Union envoy in charge of pursuing the LRA said Wednesday that many reports indicate 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 "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.
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 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. also has about 100 special forces stationed across central Africa who are helping advise in the hunt for Kony.
Uganda's military is the principal player in the multi-country hunt for Kony, 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.
Kony and two top commanders 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.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.