Uganda rebels use spirit beliefs to spread terror

His voice whispering with awe, Patrick Akat tells of the day God sent a signal of sympathy and support for Uganda's terrifying northern rebellion.

In a guerrilla hideout in the wilderness of southern Sudan, the teenager saw a white dove descend and flutter above the head of rebel leader Joseph Kony as he addressed his child fighters.

"As it flew, people started moving away (in wonder)," the former LRA child fighter told Reuters, explaining that the bird's behaviour was a sign of divine favour.

"Another day, as we trained, a star came out of the sky and flew over him. It was also a sign."

Brainwashing and belief in spirits are key to Kony's uncanny power, according to aid workers counselling children who have escaped from his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group.

In a continent torn by brutal armies, the Sudan-based LRA is among the most vicious, dismembering and burning alive the Ugandan civilians, including children and babies, it preys upon.

Crucially, it is also expert in the psychology of fear, and the skill has proved key to its survival, the aid workers say.

The LRA has snatched tens of thousands of children like Akat from their homes in its 17-year-old war against the government and forced them to work as frontline soldiers and sex slaves.

Many escape, but the LRA constantly abducts new "troops" from mud and thatch villages dotted among swamps and tall grass.

Within hours of kidnapping a new group LRA commanders will select one child for death -- usually an infant who tries to escape, is sick or fails to walk fast enough. On pain of being killed the rest of the group must beat him or her to death.

The abductees, told a similar fate awaits them if they try to escape, are rapidily traumatised into obedience.

"The kidnappers began beating me, telling me that they are now registering me to become a real soldier," another former LRA soldier, Kenneth Okorach, 16, told Reuters.

"Then I was forced to kill some people...In our group they told one person to lie down. They got a strong person to beat him. Then the rest of us children had to join in. Immediately I did that I prayed to God to forgive me."

Listed by the U.S State Department as a terrorist group, the LRA has displaced more than a million people and shut down the economy of perhaps a fifth of Uganda by a systematic campaign of violence.

The group is fighting to topple the government and says it wants to win a better life for the Acholi. But it has never detailed its demands and observers note it avoids fighting the government's army, preferring to attack civilians.

Experts on the cult-like movement say Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet and former altar boy, is a deranged personality who believes he must "cleanse" his Acholi tribe of sinners by killing anyone in it who supports the government. Estimated to be in his 40s, he has not been seen by outsiders for years.

"He sees himself as the Acholis' saviour. The idea comes from his reading of the Bible and God's treatment of the people of Israel," said Els de Temmerman, an aid worker who has interviewed hundreds of former LRA children at a rehabilitation centre she runs for them in this northern town.

"He says 'we have to cleanse our people so only the good, faithful ones remain. So we are not killing our people, we are cleansing them'," said de Temmerman, a Belgian.

"It is a cult, pure and simple."

In Akat's view, and those of many other children who like him have fled LRA ranks, Kony receives continuous messages from God and can read the minds of every one of the 3,000-plus child soldiers who serve at any one time in his rebellion.

They believe that he continues to read their minds even after they have escaped and will use his skill to track them down and kill them.

"If you ask them why they did not escape earlier they reply because he reads our minds. We could not even think of escape because we could be caught immediately," de Temmerman said.

Many of those who escape are killed by LRA hunting parties sent out to punish people they see as traitors. Their success is due to the LRA's habit of keeping a strict record of the home villages and families of those they have abducted.

"There is this very strong belief in the spirits in the Acholi community," said de Temmerman. "A lot of children, long after they have come back, tell me that they believe that Kony has the Holy Spirit and has supernatural powers.

Aid workers say Kony's brainwashing techniques are so good that many former fighters, especially those who spent years in the bush, see him as a good person, and much misunderstood.

"He is nice to children," said Akat. "His only problem is the hard orders he gives to his commanders to kill. It's them who kill and torture children. They do it behind his back."

Those with the LRA shorter periods are less generous.

"They really like killing people," said Okorach. "I think those people (in the LRA) are wasting their time."