Juba: South Sudan is to provide community militia groups with weapons to fight the brutal Ugandan Lord`s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, the governor of the hardest hit region said on Monday.
Self-defence groups known as "Arrow Boys" -- armed with basic weapons such as machetes -- already guard the rural communities affected by the LRA fighters, since the mainstream armed forces are stretched too thin across the vast jungle region.
Now, the southern Parliament has allocated five million Sudanese pounds (USD 2 million) to supply them with guns, communication systems and training, said Joseph Bakasoro, governor of Western Equatoria state.
"The home guard units will be trained and armed so that they can provide effective defence until the regular forces can intervene," said Bakasoro, speaking by telephone from Yambio, the state capital.
"The LRA deliberately target civilians and villages with attacks every week, and the people are suffering very badly."
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in two decades of fighting since LRA chief Joseph Kony took up arms, initially against the Ugandan government.
Long since driven out of Uganda, the guerrillas have carved out a vast region of control in the dense forests of south Sudan, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR).
The groups will be trained and maintain close contact with the south`s military, made up of former rebel fighters of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), Bakasoro added.
"Once the LRA have been overcome and the rebels are ended, then the SPLA will go and collect the weapons back from the units," he said.
Many fear the LRA could destabilise the region in the run up to a landmark referendum for the south due in January, when it will choose either independence or to remain part of a united Sudan.
The LRA`s acts of startling brutality -- including murder, rape and the forced conscription of children -- have forced more than 25,000 people to flee their homes in south Sudan alone since January, the United Nations says.
The rebels, whose leaders are wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, have massacred, abducted or left homeless thousands more in the neighbouring CAR and DRC.
Southern leaders accuse their former civil war enemies in the north of supporting the LRA, a charge rejected by the Khartoum government.
Earlier this month, a meeting of religious and political leaders from the affected areas of the three countries where the LRA operates called for a "negotiated settlement" to the crisis "after decades of failed military interventions”.
The Ugandan Army has led the hunt for LRA leaders across Sudan, the DRC and the CAR, since it launched a botched offensive following the collapse of peace talks.