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By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military is deploying four tilt-rotor transport planes to Uganda in response to African Union requests for airlift support in the hunt for the elusive leader of the violent Lord's Resistance Army extremist group, the Pentagon said on Monday.
The U.S. Defense Department has deployed the four CV-22 Osprey, which can take off and land vertically, to Uganda from Djibouti along with tanker refueling airplanes and 150 air crew and support personnel, said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a top Pentagon spokesman.
"Airlift has been one of the consistent requirements and requests of the African Union. We are in a position now to provide that airlift for a while and we're going to do it," Kirby said. "This is very much in keeping with the mission goals at large."
A 5,000-strong African Union Regional Task Force, supported by 100 U.S. Special Operations troops, has been hunting LRA warlord Joseph Kony and his fighters, most of whom are thought to be hiding in jungles straddling the borders of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Osprey will be used to help African Union troops respond more quickly to tips on the whereabouts of Kony, whose forces are known for their extreme violence, including chopping off limbs as a form of punishment and abducting young girls for use as sex slaves.
The CV-22 Osprey is a Special Operations variant of the aircraft, which was developed for the Marine Corps. The plane can carry about 24 troops and their gear.
The Ospreys and four refueling tankers - two C-130s and two KC-135 - will join the 100 U.S. Special Operations troops who have been in Uganda for a year advising and assisting AU forces involved in the search for Kony.
Kirby said the Ospreys would remain in Uganda only a short time before returning to their base in Djibouti but would likely return periodically to Uganda to help with the effort against Kony.
"I think it's safe to say that these aircraft and these crews will probably redeploy back over time," Kirby told a Pentagon news conference. "They probably won't be on the ground for very long, but they'll be back."
He said the additional 150 personnel consisted of air crew and maintenance personnel and would travel back and forth between Djibouti and Uganda with the planes.
Djibouti is the site of Camp Lemonnier, the only U.S. military base in Africa, which is home to some 2,500 troops who work building military ties with countries in the region.
It has been used as a base for Special Operations forces advising AU troops fighting Islamist extremists in neighboring Somalia.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Tom Brown and Ken Wills)