KAMPALA, Uganda - The fugitive African warlord Joseph Kony has handed over command of his group to one of his sons, a Ugandan military official said on Tuesday, an elevation that further marginalizes senior commanders who may threaten Kony's fading authority.
Salim Saleh was born in the 1990s, has spent all his life in the bush, and is said to be as ruthless as Kony.
Ugandan military spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said Saleh is "as hard as his father, radical like his father."
"It appears that the son has now taken over completely," Ankunda said, noting that Kony increasingly has to rely on his sons to stay fully in charge of a group in decline.
Kony is the subject of an international manhunt involving U.S. forces in parts of Central Africa, where his group - the Lord's Resistance Army - has wreaked havoc over the years in violent rampages that include the abduction of children. The LRA has taken boys who are then forced to become fighters and girls who become sex slaves, one of the reasons the group has gained international attention in recent times.
Saleh has been in charge of Kony's security amid a heightened search for the warlord and his top commanders in Congo and Central African Republic.
In 2008, as Uganda's government tried to reach a peace settlement with the LRA, Kony failed to show up for the signing ceremony and instead sent Saleh, then a teenager, to represent him. The talks collapsed.
Kony has since used the region's porous borders to go back and forth between Central African Republic and a disputed enclave in Sudanese territory called Kafia Kingi, according to Ugandan officials and watchdog groups. Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities committed since the 1980s, when he waged an insurgency against Uganda's government that later spilled across the region.
Paul Ronan of the U.S.-based watchdog group The Resolve said the promotion of Saleh signals Kony's weakness as he tries to keep "his iron grip" on the LRA. He has been purging his group of potentially disloyal commanders, and others have defected or been killed in combat with Ugandan-led African Union troops. Kony's sons appear to be taking up more influential roles, Ronan said.
"The rise of Kony's sons dovetails with a broader trend seen in recent years, in which Kony has marginalized older officers, some of them with military experience before they joined the LRA, and replacing them with a generation of younger commanders," he said in a post on The Resolve's website. "Kony considers these younger commanders, a number of whom were abducted as young boys and once served as his bodyguards, to be more loyal. His sons represent an even more extreme case, as they have known little if any life outside of the LRA."
The watchdog group Enough Project says the LRA is now weaker than ever before, and Uganda's military believes LRA forces do not exceed 500.