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GENEVA (Reuters) - The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a cultish militia that has terrorised parts of Africa for decades, has launched a new spate of attacks in Democratic Republic of Congo this year after a lull in the second half of 2011, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.
One person has been killed, 17 abducted and 3,000 displaced in 20 attacks in Orientale province in northeastern Congo this year. The renewed violence was a cause of concern, UNHCR said.
"In the last year the area was more secure," said Celine Schmitt, a UNHCR spokeswoman by phone from Kinshasa.
But Mounoubai Madnodje, a spokesman for the UN's Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), said the LRA was on its last legs.
"We think right now it's the last gasp of a dying organisation that's still trying to make a statement," he said.
The LRA, which emerged in northern Uganda in the late 1990s, is believed to have killed, kidnapped and mutilated tens of thousands of people in a reign of terror across some of Africa's most remote and hostile terrain.
It appears to have lost much of its power under mounting pressure. Its leader Joseph Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court, the African Union has designated it as a terrorist group, and in October the United States sent 100 military personnel, mainly special forces, to train and advise the forces fighting against the LRA.
Madnodje said there are only about 200 LRA fighters left. They work in small groups of five or six, raiding villages to steal food and forcing one or two people to work as porters.
"They used to control villages and take hostages. Right now it looks more like people trying to survive than anything else," he said. "It's small scale attacks.
"At this level, with the attitude of the (local) people, I don't think they will be able to recruit more people."
But experts on the LRA were sceptical about writing off Kony's force too soon. Mareike Schomerus at the London School of Economics said small scale attacks did not necessarily mean the LRA was getting weaker.
"It doesn't tell us anything because it's the same thing they have been doing for the last 25 years," she said. "They tend to attack more when they're under military pressure and military pressure has been increasing in the last few months, since October especially.
"At some point the Congolese government claimed they were down to nine people. It's impossible to say. Estimates of numbers are very hard to verify".
David Leonard, a professor at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, said the LRA was "on the back foot" but low level raids were their normal way of operating.
"Most of their recruits have been brought into the organisation through this kind of raiding," he said. "If they can't raid they can't survive."
He added that the pattern of attacks -- a lull late last year and a resumption this year -- may simply reflect the wet and dry seasons rather than indicating any change in the LRA.
The difficult conditions and remote location will also hamper efforts to snuff out the LRA, and the attacks were likely to continue at an increasingly low level until local villagers felt they could stand up to the LRA, he said.
But a hard core of veterans around Kony would not give up easily.
"As you get fewer and fewer people, those that are left are going to be true believers, senior officers who, probably quite rightly, have no confidence that if they're captured will get treated with any sort of civility," he said.
"I think keeping them on the back foot is as much as you could reasonably expect."