ISIS-linked militants kill dozens of students, abduct 6 in Uganda school attack

A sign sits outside the Lhubiriha Secondary School in Mpondwe town in western Uganda near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. | YouTube/Euronews

More than 40 people, mostly students, have been killed, some of them burned alive, by rebels linked to the Islamic State group at a secondary school in Mpondwe town in western Uganda near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The attack took place late Friday, when five militants from the Allied Democratic Forces, a group largely active along the DRC-Uganda border, invaded dormitories at Lhubiriha Secondary School. The militants set the buildings on fire and used machetes in a gruesome onslaught.

Ugandan Information Minister Chris Baryomunsi told the BBC that 37 students were killed, while the rebels also murdered a school guard and three local community members.

Twenty students were slaughtered with machetes, while 17 were burned to death. Baryomunsi did not provide details about the ages of the deceased students. The school educates students ages 13 to 18. 

Six students were abducted by the militants to transport food they had pilfered from the school's stores, according to Baryomunsi. The six abducted students are probably girls, security officials said. 

“Our forces are pursuing the enemy to rescue those abducted and destroy this group,” a statement from the defense ministry reads, according to The Sunday Times

Major General Dick Olum, the army commander for western Uganda, told media that the attackers stayed in the town for two days before the attack and were shown around by local residents.

"Everybody should be on the lookout," he warned, according to CNN. "If you see someone you don't recognize, have him arrested. Please identify the youth that led the ADF here."

After the attack, the rebels retreated across the border into the DRC. The school, with a typical student population of over 60, most of whom live on-site, now grapples with a macabre scene of devastation and fear that lingers heavily in the air.

"Survivors recounted that the rebels lobbed a bomb into the dormitory following the machete attack," military spokesman Felix Kulayigye told CNN. However, it remains uncertain if this led to the fire in the building that had been reported earlier.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the "appalling act," calling for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

Major Bilal Katamba, the spokesman for Uganda's military operations in the DRC, told CNN he believes the suspects are headed toward Virunga National Park.

Established in the mid-1990s, the ADF operates along the rugged border between Uganda and the DRC. It was sanctioned by the United States and the U.N. in 2014 for its egregious acts of terrorism in the region, including attacks on children.

Although attacks in Uganda are rare, Education International points out that a similar attack near the same border at the Kichwamba technical institute in June 1998 saw 80 students burned to death in their dormitories and over 100 abducted. 

"All children have the right to education in a safe environment free of violence and harassment," stated Education International General Secretary David Edwards.

"The authorities must act to prevent such attacks on schools, to protect the lives of children and to ensure their right to education. We stand in solidarity with our members in Uganda, the Uganda National Teachers' Union and the whole education community as they mourn with the victims and families."

The scale of the attack in Mpondwe has left the local community reeling, with eyewitnesses describing a "very crowded" mortuary and locals frantically searching for their relatives. The Mayor of Mpondwe, Mapoze Slevest, spoke of his shock, having considered Mpondwe, "a good community with no rebels."

Earlier this year, ADF was implicated in a bomb detonation during a church service in the DRC, which claimed the lives of at least 12 worshipers.

The Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project estimates that about 11.5% of Uganda's population is Muslim, mostly Sunni, while 86.7% is Christian.

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