KAMPALA, UGANDA (AP) — A bereaved Ugandan border town on Sunday began burying the victims of a brutal attack on a school by suspected extremist rebels that left 42 people dead, most of them students, as security forces stepped up patrols along the frontier with volatile eastern Congo.
One of eight people wounded in Friday night’s attack, in which 38 students were killed, died overnight, said Selevest Mapoze, mayor of the town of Mpondwe-Lhubiriha.
“Most of the relatives have come to take their bodies” from the morgue, he said.
In addition to the 38 students, the victims include a school guard and three civilians. At least two of them, members of the same family, were buried Sunday.
Some students were burned beyond recognition; others were shot or hacked to death after militants armed with guns and machetes attacked Lhubiriha Secondary School, co-ed and privately owned, which is located about 2 kilometers (just over a mile) from the Congo border. Ugandan authorities believe at least six students were abducted, taken as porters back inside Congo.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the attack in a statement, urging “the importance of collective efforts, including through enhanced regional partnerships, to tackle cross-border insecurity between (Congo) and Uganda and restore durable peace in the area.”
The atmosphere in Mpondwe-Lhubiriha was tense but calm Sunday as Ugandan security forces roamed the streets outside and near the school, which was protected by a police cordon.
The attack is blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, which rarely claims responsibility for attacks. It has established ties with the Islamic State group.
In a statement on Sunday, his first comment on the incident, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni described the attack as “criminal, desperate, terrorist and futile,” vowing to deploy more troops on the Ugandan side of the border.
The ADF has been accused of launching many attacks in recent years targeting civilians in remote parts of eastern Congo, including one in March in which 19 people were killed.
The ADF has long opposed the rule of 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 Friday’s raid.
The attack followed the same playbook: violence against students. The attackers targeted two dormitories, using extreme force when the boys resisted, according to Ugandan officials.
“This terrorist group couldn’t enter, so they threw in a bomb, they threw in a petrol bomb,” said Education Minister Janet Museveni, who also is Uganda’s first lady. “So, these children were burnt.”
Students have been attacked because schools are considered soft targets. Pupils are sometimes recruited into rebels ranks or used to carry food and supplies for insurgents, and such raids provide media coverage coveted by extremists.
The raid appears to have taken Ugandan authorities by surprise: first responders arrived after the attackers had left.
Some villagers have temporarily moved away from the Mpondwe-Lhubiriha community, fearing more attacks, Mapoze said.
The border is porous, with multiple footpaths not monitored by authorities. Many parts of eastern Congo are lawless, allowing groups like the ADF to operate because the central government in Kinshasa, the capital, has limited authority there.
But attacks by the ADF on the Ugandan side of the border are rare, thanks in part to the presence of an alpine brigade of Ugandan troops in the region. Ugandan forces have been deployed to eastern Congo since 2021 under a military operation to hunt ADF militants down and stop them from attacking civilians across the border.
The deployment of Ugandan troops inside Congo followed attacks in which at least four civilians were killed when suicide bombers believed to be members of the ADF detonated their explosives at two locations in Kampala, the capital, in November 2021. One attack happened near the Parliament building and the second near a busy police station.
Military pressure on the rebels deep inside Congolese territory had forced them to splinter into smaller groups such as the one that attacked the school, aiming to “force us to withdraw our Army to defend the Uganda villages and that would save them from the losses they are now suffering,” according to President Museveni.
“Especially now that the Congo government allowed us to operate on the Congo side also, we have no excuse in not hunting down the ADF terrorists into extinction,” he said.