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13 Nov 2006 11:00
United Nations humanitarian chief Jan Egeland held a dramatic jungle meeting with the leader of the rebel Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army on Sunday but failed to secure the release of women and children.
After hours of waiting, Joseph Kony, an elusive self-proclaimed mystic, emerged with an entourage of heavily armed young men from dense forest on the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wearing green khaki fatigues and dark glasses, Kony had few words to say in the 10-minute meeting with Egeland.
The UN envoy asked for the release of non-combatants but Kony denied having abductees or children among his forces.
“We don’t have any children. We only have combatants.
There are no wounded,” said the rebel leader in a rare encounter with journalists.
Egeland is the most senior international official to have met Kony.
During two decades of civil war, the LRA have abducted tens of thousands of women and children. Child escapees have told of being forced to beat siblings to death or eat the brains of other children.
Ironically, the LRA were seated in a tent under the logo of the UN children’s agency Unicef in Ri-Kwangba, one of two LRA assembly points specified in a truce signed with the Ugandan government in August.
South Sudan’s government is mediating peace talks in the southern capital of Juba. In Ri-Kwangba and further east in Owiny-Ki-Bul, LRA fighters are being offered food, water and shelter in an attempt to stop their looting raids in south Sudan and northern Uganda.
But in a sign of lingering distrust between the LRA and Kampala, few fighters have assembled. Bags of sugar piled high swarmed with bees and flies amid an overwhelming stench of rotting food.
“They use this as a logistical centre only, take the food and go back out there,” said one southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldier, guarding the tropical forest clearing.
The peace talks stalled after clashes between the two sides last month. Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti, in a rare joint appearance, complained that a major obstacle to the talks was the existence of arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court for five LRA leaders, including them.
“If the warrants are lifted, then we can go to the peace talks,” Otti said. The talks are intended to end one of Africa’s longest and most brutal civil wars, which has killed tens of thousands and forced nearly two million to flee their homes.
Egeland said the LRA would report back by November 22 on whether it had any women, children or injured in other areas.
“This was a very important meeting. We have ... opened dialogue with the LRA leadership on humanitarian issues such as the protection of civilians,” he added.
But LRA officials have said Kony is unlikely to agree to Egeland’s request for the release of women and children. “These people are families. They don’t want to leave,” said one.
Voices were raised during the brief meeting. The LRA leadership were clearly nervous and security was tight.
An LRA checkpoint searched vehicles and a shouting match over armed southern Sudanese bodyguards erupted before an agreement was reached to leave most of them at a safe distance.
But Kony’s guards, mostly heavily armed dreadlocked boys wearing football shirts over military trousers and rubber boots, kept close to their leader.
“Be careful, madame, don’t sent any satellite coordinates from here,” one of the fighters warned. - Reuters
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