At least 37 people were killed — many of them students — and eight others were wounded when militants with an extremist group attacked a secondary school in western Uganda, the authorities said on Saturday, in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the East African nation in years.
The group, known as the Allied Democratic Forces, attacked the school on Friday night in Mpondwe, a town near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, a police spokesman said on Twitter. During the attack, a dormitory was burned and food in a store was looted, said the spokesman, Fred Enanga. All eight who were wounded were hospitalized in critical condition, he added.
Three people were rescued, but six students were abducted, a military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Felix Kulayigye, said in a statement. The attack, which began around 11:30 p.m. on Friday, was carried out by about five militants, the authorities said.
Militants from the same group staged an attack in Uganda in late 2021, when suicide bombers set off coordinated explosions in the capital, Kampala, that killed three people, sowing fears about the Allied Democratic Forces’ reach and posing a vexing challenge for the Ugandan authorities.
“We hope that investigations can begin in earnest so that the perpetrators of this crime face justice,” Bobi Wine, a Ugandan musician turned opposition leader, said on Twitter.
On Saturday afternoon, photographs and video shared on social media and television showed a heavy military presence near the school as aid workers arrived. General Kulayigye said the chief of the country’s defense forces and the commander of the land forces were expected to visit the area. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, also instructed officials from the Ministry of Education to visit the school.
The Mpondwe Lhubiriha Secondary School is a private school only miles from the busy border crossing with Congo. The school is about 200 miles from Kampala, in a poor farming community where many families cultivate and sell crops, including maize and cassava.
Many of the schools in Uganda, both public and private, have dormitories for boarding students. Photographs and videos from the school on Saturday showed the windows and corrugated roofs of the dormitories blackened with soot.
Maj. Gen. Dick Olum, the commander of Uganda’s military operation in Congo, said at a meeting with residents that rebel members had spent two nights in the town before attacking the school. He said that some of the students had been burned or hacked to death, and that government pathologists would carry out DNA tests to identify the charred bodies.
Ugandan officials said the army and the police were pursuing the attackers, who had fled toward the Virunga National Park, a thick forest in neighboring Congo that is home to endangered mountain gorillas. The militants used the abducted students to carry the looted food, the military said.
The government has deployed planes in the search, General Olum said. He also called on the town’s residents to remain vigilant and report anything suspicious.
The fact that this attack happened, the general said, “is a very shameful thing.”
Since 2021, the Ugandan government, in conjunction with the Congolese government, has launched an offensive against the Allied Democratic Forces, with the aim of rooting the group out from its bases in eastern Congo.
The two governments have provided few details about the military campaign, saying only that air and artillery strikes have weakened the group, which at one point pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
But regional observers have remained doubtful about the success of the operation, code-named Shujaa, or “Bravery,” saying that the Allied Democratic Forces has continued to wreak havoc in eastern Congo, a lush, mineral-rich region where more than 100 rebel groups have overseen a wave of massacres and widespread destruction for decades.
Experts also say that Mr. Museveni, who has been in power for almost four decades, was using the operation to bolster his image and to secure oil fields that are being dug near the border with Congo.
The Allied Democratic Forces was established in eastern Congo in 1995 by two groups opposed to Mr. Museveni, one of them an Islamist sect. The group also received regional backing from leaders in other countries, including Sudan and Congo, who sought to undermine Mr. Museveni’s rule.
In 1998, rebels affiliated with the group attacked a college in western Uganda, killing 80 students and kidnapping 100 others. But beginning in 2011, major offensives carried out by the Ugandans, the Congolese and United Nations peacekeeping forces undermined the group, prompting it to retreat deeper into the mountainous Ruwenzori region that borders Uganda and Congo.
The group’s former leader, Jamil Mukulu, was captured in Tanzania in 2015 and then extradited to Uganda.
The group has nonetheless continued to carry out even more vicious attacks. Over the past few years, it has recruited new members, including children; attacked peacekeepers; conducted jail breaks; and engaged in sexual violence, according to the United Nations.
It also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, which in 2019 claimed its first attack in Congo. In 2021, the United States designated the Allied Democratic Forces a terrorist organization and offered a reward of up to $5 million for information on the group’s new leader, Seka Musa Baluku.
But while there are some financial connections and ideological similarities between the two entities, regional observers and United Nations experts say there is no “conclusive evidence” of the Islamic State’s commanding or controlling the group’s operations.
Friday’s attack, observers said, showed how the group relied on spontaneous assaults and guerrilla tactics to carry out lethal onslaughts.
“Furthermore, the A.D.F.’s ability to merge with civilian communities allows them to lie low when necessary, and to re-emerge when conditions are more favorable,” said Michael Mutyaba, a Ugandan researcher and political analyst. “This explains why it’s proving resilient.”