Some 300 former rebels join national army

About 300 former fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group, were integrated into the national army on Tuesday after completing a three-month re-training programme.

The programme, the first of its kind, was meant, according to the army, to re-orient them.

The rebels, who included nine women whom the LRA had abducted from villages in northern Uganda and forced to become fighters, graduated from the course at a ceremony in Gulu officiated by army commander Lieutenant General Aronda Nyakayirima, according to the army's spokesman in the region, Lt. Paddy Ankunda.

"This is the first exercise to train LRA [fighters who give themselves up] and integrate them into the army. They are all ready to do a good job and ready to fight alongside the UPDF (government army) and end the Kony [LRA leader Joseph Kony] problem once and for all," Ankunda told IRIN by phone from the ceremony.

He said the rebels would make up the army's 105 battalion, which would be commanded by a UPDF major and would be expanded with time. "We shall continue to top it up as others continue to report," he added.

"They went through a conventional military training to become real soldiers. They also had a political education programme that was meant to re-orient them," army spokesman Major Shaban Bantariza said, adding that those integrated had to be between 18 and 30 years of age.

Some humanitarian bodies questioned the wisdom of making these fighters part of the army, saying they required longer periods of counseling because many were children when they were abducted and forced to commit atrocities. "These people cannot be in their normal senses to handle a service like the army. They required months of counseling before the idea of introducing them to any vocation could arise," said a church worker in northern Uganda who preferred not to be named.

"They only know that to go out and fight is to kill people. Three months could not change this attitude and all of them needed psychiatric help after going through those rituals of killing by the LRA," another added.

Bantariza countered that the political education they received was meant to re-orient them so that they become part of a pro-people army and abandon their past traits. "A number of them have known only fighting for the best of their lives, it would have been difficult to ask them to take up a different vocation," he said. "We even asked them to take options and they opted for the army."

He said that the former rebels had been put in the same battalion because the "army wanted to keep them near each other so that they could not be misinformed that those deployed elsewhere had been killed."

Senior rebel commanders who surrendered recently and held meeting with top government officials, including President Yoweri Museveni, witnessed Tuesday's ceremony after returning to Gulu from the capital, Kampala. They had gone to Kampala to apply for pardon under an existing amnesty law.

The LRA has fought the Uganda government since 1986, waging a brutal campaign that has displaced about 1.6 million people. The rebels have targeted children in particular, abducting thousands of young boys and girls for recruitment into their ranks or to be turned into "wives" for LRA commanders.