Uganda gripped by rebel chief murder claims

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The Independent Online

Speculation is mounting about whether Joseph Kony, the self-styled mystic leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has killed his deputy, who is seen as crucial to peace talks aimed at resolving the two-decade-old conflict in northern Uganda.

The group's number two, Vincent Otti, has disappeared from the airwaves and failed to answer his satellite phone in recent weeks, triggering a flurry of reports that he was killed in a remote jungle base after a power struggle with his boss.

The Ugandan military, analysts and many involved in the peace negotiations believe Otti has been killed. However, no body has been found. The government of south Sudan, where the LRA also often operates, has set up a team to investigate the reports.

Kony, however, says Otti is alive. In an apparent effort to quash the speculation, the self-proclaimed spirit medium and prophet who is renowned for his purges, called a Ugandan government official, saying Otti had been "detained and not killed".

Uganda's New Vision newspaper quoted a conversation Kony had via satellite phone with Norbert Mao, a senior politician in his home area. Kony reportedly said: "Otti is under arrest pending investigations. He is accused of conspiring against the interests of the LRA. There was no shootout. I have not killed anybody."

But that has not convinced many who have followed the 21-year insurgency, which has terrorised communities, with LRA rebels killing villagers, slicing off survivors' lips or ears and abducting more than 20,000 children as fighters, porters and sex slaves. One analyst of the peace process said: "Every sign is that he is dead. There has been no sight or sound of Otti. Even when he was under house arrest, he was still available on the phone. Now even that seems to have gone cold."

Otti is seen as the brains behind the group. He is better educated, more communicative and less volatile than his boss. He had been the main voice of the rebellion and was a prime mover behind the LRA joining the peace talks which began last year.

Speculation over his death comes as negotiators are hoping to conclude talks between the rebels and the government. Delegates of the LRA, Ugandan government officials and mediators are in northern Uganda to try to forge a path for peace. If Otti is dead any final peace deal could be in jeopardy.

One peace delegate said: "The last thing Kony would want is for him to be seen to have executed Otti. We suspect that Otti is dead but Kony is looking for ways of presenting it properly."

Five other senior LRA leaders have defected in the last month, including Opiyo Makasi, the former director of operations . There are reports that they have taken up to 100 fighters with them but this could not be confirmed with peacekeepers operating near the LRA base on the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than 1.5 million people have fled their homes to escape the war. The brutality of the rebellion led to the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing arrest warrants for the LRA leadership and its senior commanders in 2005. The rebels have since asked civilians for forgiveness for the violence and tried to encourage those displaced to return home.

Negotiators are due to meet Kony in person near his base at the end of the month in an attempt to conclude the talks. The Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, has promised not to hand the rebels over to the ICC if a deal is finalised.