UGANDA: Talks hit fresh snag amid rebel protest
LRA leader Joseph Kony.
Kampala, 30 November 2006 (IRIN) - The Lord’s Resistance Army has suspended peace talks with the Ugandan government just before the deadline for the rebels to assemble in designated places, claiming the cessation of hostilities agreement has been violated.
"We are protesting in the strongest terms possible recent violations of the cessation of hostilities agreement by the Ugandan army, which attacked our forces moving to Owiny Ki-Bul on Wednesday morning," Obonyo Olweny, the LRA spokesman, told IRIN on Thursday by telephone from Juba. Talks aimed at ending two decades of a bloody conflict that has ravaged northern Uganda are being held in the southern Sudanese capital.
"We want the intervention of the mediators and a complete withdrawal of the Ugandan army from all positions east of the River Nile [near Owiny Ki-Bul] before we can resume talks. The LRA high command has directed that we suspend participation in the talks until the UPDF forces [Ugandan army] withdraw from all those areas," he added.
The Ugandan military, however, denied the LRA claims, saying there had been no fighting between the army and the LRA in recent weeks.
"There has not been any contact with them. We have not attacked them and we would not have any justification for attacking them," army spokesman Major Felix Kulaigye told IRIN. The rebel claims, he added, were a smokescreen to cover up the rebels’ failure to gather their forces at the assembly points.
"Why should we shoot ourselves in the foot by attacking them now? Why shouldn't we have waited until December 1, which is the deadline for their assembling? This is simply an effort to find an excuse that could justify their continued violations of the cessation of hostilities agreement," said Kulaigye.
Early in November, the two parties signed a renewed ceasefire agreement that gave the LRA until 1 December to assemble its troops at two Sudan sites - Owiny Ki-Bul, near the border with the Uganda, and Ri-Kwangba, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rebels who had initially assembled at the two sites fled, fearing Ugandan army attacks.
"It is very unfortunate that the process is reaching a stalemate. The demands by the LRA [to withdraw from east of the Nile] could wreck the peace process. It is very strong because it is conditional on a withdrawal which the government might not accept," said James Otto, head of Human Rights Caucus, a non-governmental organisation based in the northern town of Gulu.
The talks started in July under the mediation of southern Sudan's Vice-President Riek Machar, but have faltered several times amid mutual recrimination over the truce accord.
Olweny said the LRA forces had come under attack as they moved to Owiny Ki-Bul. Three LRA fighters, he added, were killed during the encounter and the Ugandan army continued to pursue other LRA soldiers after the alleged attack. The LRA had bases in southern Sudan, which they used to launch cross-border raids into northern Uganda, where they stand accused of committing atrocities against civilians during their violent insurrection.
Olweny said the mediation team was aware of the grievances and the LRA delegation was awaiting an answer.
"We believe the Ugandan government should not be allowed to use this time of peace talks to achieve a military victory. But if they want war, they should state it clearly, and we shall give them war," he added.
Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, and four of the group's other commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to answer charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including abduction of children and rape. Humanitarian agencies believe that up to 25,000 children were abducted by the rebels in the course of the war.
The Juba negotiations are the best chance to end the conflict, described as one of the world's worst, and most-forgotten, humanitarian crises, which has raged since 1988 when Kony and the LRA took leadership of a regional rebellion among northern Uganda's ethnic Acholi minority.