At least 270 people, mainly children, freed from captivity in May

At least 270 abductees, mainly children, were rescued from rebel captivity by the Ugandan army in May, while 211 people were killed in various battles between the army and the rebels in northern Uganda over the same month, an army spokesman said.

"[In May] 279 captives were rescued, 70 percent of whom were children, [while] 147 rebels were killed. Fifty five civilians were also killed and we lost nine soldiers in various battles with the rebels," Lt Paddy Ankunda told IRIN by telephone from Gulu town, 360 km north of the capital, Kampala.

Religious leaders in the region have said that many of those killed as rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), were in fact children abducted and forced either to fight or were killed during crossfire as the army attacked rebel positions.

"When we talk of rebels, it is something we need to critically examine. Rebels is not the right terminology, because these are children abducted, ill-trained and then forced to fight the army, and when they are killed, the army says we have killed rebels," Bishop Baker Ochola, the vice chairman of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a body seeking dialogue to end the war, tld IRIN from Gulu.

He said the situation in the region was still "very tense", making it difficult to venture out to the villages where the rebels had carried out many ambushes. "It is very difficult to verify who is killed. The army sometimes use helicopter gunships to pound groups of rebels that are moving in the same group with captives," the bishop added.

The army spokesman denied that the army had killed innocent children while raiding rebel positions. "We kill rebels and we rescue captives," Ankunda said.

He told IRIN that the army had captured 18 rebels, while 215 others, including 27 senior rebel commanders, had surrendered to its units in May. Some 111 rifles and over 4,800 rounds of ammunition had been recovered.

In an interview with IRIN last week, the executive director of the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, said children had borne the brunt of the war in northern Uganda.

"Northern Uganda presents a situation of extraordinary violation of the rights of children. First, close to 1.6 million people have been displaced from their homes, and 80 percent of these are women and children. Secondly, very specifically, one of the fighting forces - the rebels have based much of their fighting on the use of children abducted from the area," she said.

"It is an explicit violation of children's rights and a humanitarian crisis directly affecting children," Bellamy added.

The LRA has waged war against the government for 18 years. It frequently attacks villages and trading centres, murdering or torturing civilians and abducting children for forcible recruitment as soldiers, porters or sex slaves. According to UNICEF, the LRA has abducted an estimated 12,000 children in the last two years.