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The Central African Republic's president said Thursday he was negotiating the surrender of wanted Ugandan militia boss Joseph Kony but Washington dismissed the claims.
The announcement had raised hopes that Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army were on their last legs, but US officials quickly moved to describe reports the rebel leader himself was involved in surrender talks as not "credible".
"It's true, Joseph Kony wants to come out of the bush. We are negotiating with him," Michel Djotodia said during a meeting with political leaders in the capital Bangui.
"He asked for food supplies and the government took care of that," the Central African interim leader said.
Kony's LRA, which claimed to be fighting for the Ten Commandments when it was founded a quarter century ago, is considered one of the most brutal groups in Africa's recent history.
It started as an insurgency fighting President Yoweri Museveni's regime but in recent years, its defeated remnants have operated mostly in neighbouring countries as a roving mercenary and extortionist gang.
LRA men have raped and massacred villagers in the region, evading arrest in one of the most impenetrable regions of Africa straddling the borders of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Envoys from the United Nations and the African Union said on Wednesday after meeting Djotodia there were indications that Kony might be seeking to come out of the bush because he is thought to be seriously ill.
The LRA -- described by the International Crisis Group as a "multinational criminal and terror band" -- is thought to be a dwindling force of 500 fighters at most.
"There are 7,000 people with him," Djotodia said Thursday, presumably referring to enslaved abducted villagers. He did not provide further information on Kony's whereabouts.
'No reason to believe'
While Djotodia is believed to have had contact with some LRA fighters, "we've no reason to believe that Joseph Kony is part of these negotiations," a senior US official told AFP.
The group of fighters is thought to have said it would lay down arms if given some form of amnesty and land to farm in the Central African Republic, the official said.
The group has claimed it could draw out other LRA fighters but "we have no reason to believe that Joseph Kony himself is involved, at least at this time," the official added.
The LRA has a loose structure, other gangs have used the name to sow terror in the region and a number of men have claimed to have a line to its elusive boss over the years, making any talks very complicated.
UN envoy Abu Mussa and his AU counterpart Francisco Madeira said Wednesday they warned Djotodia against being tricked by Kony, who has walked out on several peace negotiations in the past.
Djotodia, whose country has been sliding into chaos since he seized power in a March coup, is himself under increasing pressure from the international community, including the United States.
He has failed to rein in his former Seleka rebel comrades and the UN has said it might have to send in thousands of peacekeepers amid growing concern a possible genocide was in the making.
A former altar boy
A 3,000-strong Ugandan-led African force is currently hunting Kony.
They are backed by about 100 military advisors from the United States, which has offered a $5 million reward for Kony's capture.
Moussa said the Central African Republic authorities had expected a mass surrender by LRA fighters on November 3, but it did not happen.
The 50-year-old Kony, a former altar boy who followed in the footsteps of messianic former prostitute and rebel leader Alice Lakwena in the late 1980s, is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
In 2005, he was charged with 12 counts of crimes against humanity and 21 counts of war crimes, including murder, rape, forced enlistment of children and sexual enslavement.
The list of crimes has grown longer since and according to a recent UN report, the LRA is responsible for 100,000 deaths over the past 25 years.
It is also estimated to have abducted up to 100,000 children and caused the displacement of 2.5 million people over the same period.
Kony surged to unexpected worldwide prominence in March 2012 on the back of a hugely popular Internet video that called for his capture.