Ugandan rebel says LRA ready for peace talks

The deputy chief of Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) said on Wednesday the rebels are ready to talk peace, breaking the group’s penchant for secrecy and drawing a cautious response from the goverment.

Vincent Otti, the number two of elusive LRA supremo Joseph Kony, said his boss had authorised him to make the call for a negotiated end to the brutal nearly 20-year war the rebels have waged in northern Uganda.

“I am Lieutenant-General Vincent Otti and want this talk with the government of Uganda to end the rebellion, because now we fought for 20 years, we are ready for this talk from today,” he said.

The comments came in a suprise satellite telephone call to the British Broadcasting Corporation, in which Otti—one of five top LRA leaders to have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity—also said he was prepared to be tried for alleged atrocities.

He urged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to respond to the call which comes amid a surge of LRA attacks, particularly on aid workers, which have further complicated the humanitarian situation in the impoverished north.

But senior government officials reacted cautiously, noting that previous attempts to negotiate with the LRA had advanced little beyond unsigned ceasefires and tentative meetings in remote locations in the bush.

“If the LRA is this time serious, the government always has its doors open and always wants to end the conflict through dialogue,” said Information Minister Ruhakana Rugunda.

“If it is a genuine and serious offer, the government welcomes it,” said Rugunda, who led a botched attempt to sign a truce with the LRA on New Year’s Eve 2004.

After that effort failed, Museveni responded by stepping up military operations against the rebels who have earned worldwide revulsion for their brutal treatment of civilians.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and up to two million displaced in northern Uganda since the LRA took leadership of a regional rebellion against Kampala in 1988.

The rebels claim to be fighting to install a government based on the Biblical Ten Commandments but are accused of massive abuses in the region, including the abductions of at least 20 000 children who are used as porters, fighters and sex slaves for LRA commanders.

In October, the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, said it had issued arrest warrants for Kony, Otti and three other LRA commanders.

The ICC said the LRA had “established a pattern of brutalisation of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilations, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements”.

In addition to the ICC indictments, the LRA has been under mounting pressure in recent weeks amid increasing cooperation between Kampala and Khartoum, which has extended the area in which Ugandan troops can pursue rebels in south Sudan.

However, there had been concern among local and church leaders in northern Uganda that those steps could scupper any chance for peace talks and intensify rebel attacks on non-military targets, something that has happened.

Last month, suspected LRA rebels killed two aid workers in northern Ugandan and two others in neighbouring southern Sudan in apparent targetted attacks on humanitarian vehicles, leading relief agencies to curtail their operations.

Former government minister Betty Bigombe, the chief mediator in the thus-far unsuccessful peace talks, said the LRA had decided to off the olive branch after on- and off-talks with the reclusive rebel leadership.

“We have been talking these days and it is through these talks that we can get moving,” said Bigombe.

The United Nations has said the conflict in northern Uganda is one of the world’s worst and most ignored humanitarian catastrophes and a UN official said on Wednesday that Otti’s call for peace talks was positive.

“The statement by Otti is a positive move considering that he is even saying that he is ready to talk to the ICC,” the official said on condition of anonymity. - AFP

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