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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S.-backed efforts to hunt down fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony have "significantly degraded" his ability to wreak havoc across central Africa, but more needs to be done before he can be put out of operation, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama this week extended the mission of some 100 U.S. military advisers dispatched last year to help African government forces battling Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), accused of terrorizing the region for decades through murder, rape and kidnapping children.
The U.S. officials told a congressional panel on Wednesday that the operation had made some initial progress, but underscored the challenges as the United States seeks to help four African states scour an inaccessible region roughly the size of California.
"The common assessment is that he has been significantly degraded and is in a survival-and-evasion mode at this point," Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary for African Affairs at the Defense Department, said.
"Those are encouraging signs to us, that are shared with our partners."
The U.S. deployment is part of a series of international moves to ratchet up the pressure on Kony, whose LRA rebels are notorious for hacking off limbs and abducting children. They have taken refuge in the steamy jungles straddling the borders of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The anti-Kony campaign has also received a major public U.S. relations boost after an activist group released a video entitled "Kony 2012" that became an Internet sensation and won a series of celebrity endorsements.
The U.S. military deployment has won broad bipartisan support in the United States, but lawmakers pressed the officials on Wednesday for word on how long it might take to bring Kony and his henchmen to justice.
"One of our biggest challenges with the mission collectively is expectations management," Dory said, citing difficult access and limited infrastructure in the targeted border area.
"It's a very challenging terrain in which to find a small number of needles in a haystack," Dory said.
Donald Yamamoto, deputy assistant secretary for African affairs at the State Department, said the U.S. mission was making progress in building regional military cooperation and improving programs such as cellphone alert networks, which local villages can use to warn of impending LRA attacks.
He said the United States believed Kony was down to about 150 active fighters and that defections from the group were increasing, although he said it appeared those in the field were stepping up their attacks.
"In the last three months the number of attacks by Kony's group has increased. But we are trying to limit those areas of operations," Yamamoto said, saying it was still proving difficult to pinpoint Kony's possible whereabouts.
"Kony is such an elusive character, and he travels very stealthily, so it is difficult," he said.
Military forces on the ground have encountered numerous obstacles, often trekking through hanging vines and dense foliage that cut visibility and wading chest-deep through crocodile-infested rivers.
Kony, a self-styled mystic leader who at one time wanted to rule Uganda according to the biblical Ten Commandments, fled northern Uganda in 2005, spurring a cat-and-mouse chase that has gone on for years.
While some in the region had hoped the greater U.S. involvement in the hunt would bring quick results, Obama has emphasized that the troops' mission would be to assist regional forces with intelligence and logistics, and that they would not engage in combat except in self-defense.
Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman