Uganda government, rebels to sign landmark cease-fire
Uganda's government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army are to sign a landmark total cease-fire on Friday, opening the way for an end to a bloody 18-year insurgency, the chief negotiator said on Wednesday.
The LRA, whose only stated aim is to rule the east African country by the biblical Ten Commandments, has rampaged through the north of Uganda, attacking civilians, kidnapping children and forcing 1.6 million people to flee to refugee camps.
"This is a very important day because the government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army rebels have just agreed to sign the agreement to end hostility before this year ends," chief negotiator and former government minister Betty Bigombe told reporters.
Both sides expressed hope the cease-fire would bring an end to the war.
They had been holding talks at Kitgum district of northern Uganda on the Ugandan-Sudan border, with leaders from the LRA, government ministers and senior clergymen meeting Bigombe.
It was not immediately clear what concessions, if any, either side made to secure the total cease-fire, which Bigombe said would not be limited by time or scope unlike previous cessations in hostilities. Neither the LRA leader Joseph Kony, a dreadlocked self-proclaimed prophet, nor Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni attended the talks.
A source close to the talks said there would be further negotiations before the cease-fire was signed on Friday which may throw up some conditions.
"If the government continues showing us what it has just shown us, then the suffering will soon end," said Brigadier Sam Kolo, leading the LRA delegation.
The rebels routinely target civilians, slicing off the lips and ears of their victims and kidnapping thousands of children who are forced to work as porters, fighters and sex slaves.
"We have been very encouraged by our brothers of the LRA who have proved to be very constructive in ending this war. If they continue with this commitment, the war will surely end soon," Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda said after the talks.
COMMITTED TO PEACE
The peace talks are the first in more than a decade. It was also the first time journalists had met top leaders of the elusive LRA group, who have until now made announcements by phone calls to radio programs.
"If we were really killers ... we could kill you all now for nothing but that's not our aim. We are committed to peace 100 percent," Kolo had told the negotiators, who traveled to the remote area in a U.N. convoy.
In November, Kolo called a radio station with an offer of peace and the government responded cautiously. It offered a cease-fire only after Kolo met briefly with Bigombe to verify his radio message was authentic.
The rebel initiative followed a months-long Ugandan army campaign which military commanders said weakened the rebels and forced them to hide in neighboring southern Sudan. Bigombe was a government minister back in 1993 when she held talks with Kony that fell apart after Museveni accused the LRA of using them to plan new attacks.
The LRA is under investigation for human rights crimes by the International Criminal Court, but Museveni has said he would intervene on behalf of the rebels if they renounced violence.