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By Peter Jones
KINSHASA (Reuters) - A sharp rise in elephant poaching in a remote park in Democratic Republic of Congo has conservation groups asking if the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is hunting the protected animals in its stronghold there.
Thirty-three elephants have been killed in Congo's Garamba National Park in the past five weeks, including 10 poached last Friday, according to African Parks, a conservation group that manages the park along with Congolese authorities.
Park rangers killed three poachers in a weekend gunbattle in Garamba, in Congo's northeastern corner near South Sudan.
"We have reason to believe that the major poaching thrust is emanating from the heavily forested Azande Domaine de Chasse (which) has been a traditional base for the LRA," African Parks CEO Peter Fearnhead wrote in a letter to conservation partners that Reuters obtained on Wednesday.
Warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA leader indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, waged a brutal guerrilla war against the Ugandan government in the north of the country for nearly two decades before fleeing with his fighters into the jungles of Central Africa around 2005.
A 2013 report from human rights group Enough Project said the LRA had begun systematically killing elephants and trading poached ivory for food, weapons, ammunition and other supplies.
Fearnhead wrote it was not yet clear "whether the current poaching onslaught emanates from the LRA, Sudanese poaching gangs, local Congolese poachers, or a combination of these."
Garamba is home to around 1,800 elephants, according to African Parks, and has been targeted by poachers in the past.
Twenty-two elephants were killed and their tusks and genitals removed in a single 2012 attack suspected of being carried out by the LRA.
However, the rebels' involvement in the killings was never confirmed and some harbor doubts that the LRA is behind the latest wave of poaching.
"We hear the elephants were killed by professional poachers. That is not the LRA," said Rev Benoit Kinalegu, a Catholic priest who heads a network monitoring LRA attacks and movements from the town of Dungu on the edge of the Garamba park.
"This area is so militarised it is impossible to know who it was," he said.
A 5,000-strong African Union Regional Task Force, supported by 100 U.S. Special Forces, is hunting for Kony and his commanders, who are accused of abducting thousands of children to use as fighters in a rebel army that has earned a reputation for mutilating its victims.
While Kony is believed to be hiding in a Sudanese-controlled area of a disputed enclave in South Sudan, according to the United Nations, his fighters continue to operate in an isolated zone straddling South Sudan, Congo and Central African Republic.
(Reporting by Peter Jones; Editing by Joe Bavier and Tom Heneghan)