Uganda and rebels set for truce after 100,000 deaths

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The Independent Online

A truce that could end one of Africa's most brutal wars will come into force today after Uganda and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) agreed a ceasefire.

After nearly 20 years of fighting that has killed 100,000 and displaced nearly two million people, the LRA has agreed to leave its hideouts in northern Uganda and eastern Congo and assemble at camps in south Sudan within the next three weeks. Soldiers, many of them children, have already begun to leave their bases, with the first set to arrive in south Sudan within days.

Peace talks in Juba, south Sudan's capital, will continue as representatives of President Yoweri Museveni and the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony, thrash out the final terms of what both sides hope will be a permanent peace.

Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet who believes Uganda should be ruled in accordance with the Biblical Ten Commandments, has expressed a wish to return to his home in northern Uganda after two decades fighting in the bush. President Museveni has offered Kony and his soldiers an amnesty.

However, the offer is complicated by indictments for war crimes against Kony and four other LRA leaders issued by the International Criminal Court. The chief prosecutor of the ICC has insisted that the indictments are still in place and has called on the governments of Uganda and south Sudan to arrest the LRA's leadership. Neither Kony nor his number two, Vincent Otti, were prepared to travel to Juba for the peace talks, fearful that they might be arrested.

The indictments were the first issued by the ICC since it was set up in 2002. If they were to be revoked it could be seen as a defeat for international justice.

The chief prosecutor is able to suspend the investigation if there is a risk of threatening the peace process. The UN Security Council is also able to suspend the process for up to one year. However, only the ICC's pre-trial chamber has the authority to stop proceedings altogether.

Northern Ugandan politicians have criticised Western countries, in particular Britain, for refusing to support the withdrawal of the indictments. But although some Ugandan ministers have criticised the ICC and despite President Museveni's offer of an amnesty, the Ugandan government has yet to officially request the indictments be revoked. The Ugandan security minister, Amama Mbabazi, visited the court in The Hague last month, but during his meeting with the chief prosecutor Mr Mbabazi did not ask for the indictments to be rescinded.

Nearly two million people have been displaced within northern Uganda, forced to live in "protection camps" set up by the government. Within the district of Pader, more than 90 per cent of the population, some 450,000 people, are living in such camps.

Many say they are prepared to accept the return of Kony and his soldiers to the community. But a survey last year by the International Centre for Transitory Justice showed that more than half of northern Uganda's population wanted to see those who carried out killings, mutilations and abductions punished.

One option that may be considered is the use of traditional reconciliation courts run by elders. However these are normally used to try people who have committed minor crimes.

Since the LRA began its campaign in the Acholi region of northern Uganda in 1987, the group has abducted tens of thousands of children, using them as soldiers, porters and sex slaves. They have also been accused of mutilating civilians. At the height of the conflict, tens of thousands of children would leave their homes at dusk and walk to shelters in nearby towns, where the risk of night-time abduction by the LRA was smaller. As the conflict has quietened down in recent months, the number of "night commuters" has fallen. In the Gulu district on the border with Sudan it has dropped from 25,000 two years ago to just 4,000 now.