Ugandan forces are hunting rebels accused of killing at least 41 civilians, most of them students, in the country’s worst attack in more than a decade.
Authorities have blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group that has pledged allegiance to ISIL (ISIS), for Friday’s attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border town of Mpandwe.
In his first comments after the attack, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni vowed to hunt the attackers “to extinction”.
“Their actions – desperate, cowardly, terrorist actions – will not save them,” Museveni said in a statement, pledging to deploy more troops on the Ugandan side of the border.
Pope Francis on Sunday prayed for the “young students victims of brutal attacks” that shocked Uganda and drew international condemnation.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it a “horrific act”, while the US, Uganda’s close ally and the African Union also condemned the bloodshed.
Here’s what we know about the worst attack in Uganda since 2010, when twin bombings in the capital Kampala killed 76 people, by the Somalia-based al-Shabaab armed group.
Most of the victims died late on Friday when a fire broke out in a dormitory at Lubiriha Secondary School, less than 2 km (1.2 miles) from the border.
Students told Al Jazeera that they were sleeping when suspected ADF fighters entered the school. Some of them were hacked to death, others were burnt alive using petrol bombs. A few students survived by hiding under the corpses of others.
“We were getting ready to sleep when we heard screams, we saw men dressed in dark green with guns, axes and knives,” said Bright Mumbere, a student.
“They wanted us to open the dormitory door and then start shooting,” he added.
Ugandan Education Minister Janet Museveni, who is also the country’s first lady, said 17 students were burned in their dormitories and 20 female students were hacked to death.
An unknown number of attackers from the ADF armed group, based in eastern DRC, fled into Birunga National Park, a vast area that straddles the border, taking six students captive, authorities said.
Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) spokesperson Felix Kulaigye said the armed forces were chasing the criminals to rescue the kidnapped students.
Questions have been raised as to how the attackers managed to avoid detection in a border region with a heavy military presence.
Major General Dick Olum said intelligence had suggested an ADF presence in the area at least two days before the attack and an investigation would be needed to establish what went wrong.
Mourning in the family
Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition, frustrating efforts to identify the dead and account for the missing.
At a mortuary in Bewara, a town near Empondwe, families were uneasy as their loved ones’ bodies were placed in coffins and taken away for burial.
Mpondwe-Lubiriha town mayor Selvest Mapoze said “most relatives have come to collect their bodies” from the morgue.
But many were not aware of missing relatives. The charred unidentified bodies have been sent to Fort Portal town for DNA testing.
“We know that 20 students, all girls, were hacked to death, and 17 boys were petrol-bombed in their dormitories,” said Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
Who is ADF?
The ADF, which the United States has designated a “terrorist” group, is considered the deadliest of the dozens of armed militias that roam the mineral-rich eastern DRC. In March, Washington announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of the ADF leader.
The ADF was formed in 1995 by a coalition of rebel forces – including the Uganda Muslim Liberation Army and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) – to fight the regime of Museveni, who has held power in the East African country ever since. 1986.
Over the years, the group was supported by successive DRC governments who were keen to destroy Rwandan and Ugandan influence in the country.
But in 2013, the ADF began attacking Congolese military targets, leading the army to fight back. As a result, ADF leader Jamil Mukulu fled to Tanzania in 2015, where he was arrested and extradited to his home country to stand trial on “terrorism” charges.
Past ADF attacks
This was not the first attack by the ADF on a school in Uganda. In June 1998, an ADF attack on Kichwamba Technical Institute near the DRC border burned 80 students to death in their dormitory. Hundreds of students have been kidnapped.
Ugandan authorities also blamed the group for a deadly suicide bombing in the capital in 2021, after which it launched a joint military operation in the DRC. But the measures have so far failed to stop ADF attacks.