Joseph Kony, indicted war criminal, self-declared spirit medium, and leader of a children's army which has caused havoc in northern Uganda over the past 19 years, has been offered an amnesty if he abandons terrorism and "responds positively" to next week's peace talks, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said yesterday.
"To hand over Kony after he has come out himself; that's out," President Museveni said after talks with a senior UN envoy.
The offer came even though the International Criminal Court in the Hague has indicted Kony with 12 counts of crimes against humanity and 21 of war crimes, including murder, inducing rape, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population and forced enlisting of children. Arrest warrants, for Kony, Vincent Otti and three other officers of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), were unsealed last October, but none are in custody.
As the court only intends to prosecute those bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed after July 2002, the move to grant immunity or protection to Kony will cause dismay.
The UN humanitarian affairs chief Jan Egeland has described the LRA's activities as "terrorism of the worst kind" and the conflict as the world's worst human rights crisis.
But a Kenyan government spokesman said yesterday: "President Yoweri Museveni has declared that the Uganda government will grant total amnesty to the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, despite the International Criminal Court indictment, if he responds positively." Museveni made the promise during talks with Walter Kalin, the UN representative on internally displaced peoples.
President Museveni reportedly told Kony that he would resist international pressure to hand him over but that next week's peace talks will be his last chance.
Kony is believed to be the cousin of Alice Lakwena, a former prostitute who formed the Holy Spirit Movement in 1986. She promised her followers they would not be hurt by the bullets of the Ugandan army, but Mr Museveni's troops wiped them out in 1988 and she fled to Kenya.
There, Kony formed the Lord's Resistance Army movement, which has waged a brutal guerrilla war, demanding that Uganda be ruled according to the 10 Commandments. It abducts thousands of children, forcing them to become fighters or sex slaves.
Every night, as many as 40,000 children - known as "night commuters" - flee the countryside to seek the relative safety of towns. At least 1.3 million people have been displaced and live in government-controlled camps.
Despite well-documented reports of atrocities there have been many attempts to rehabilitate Kony in recent months. These culminated in a BBC Newsnight interview last week, in which he denied atrocities and called for peace talks.
Kony said stories of LRA rebels cutting off people's ears or lips were propaganda. He also denied kidnapping children.
Kony's denials are flatly contradicted by former rebels and abducted children, as well as carefully documented evidence. The US Government has indicated its willingness to allow Uganda to sidestep its obligation to hand over Kony to get a peace deal signed, but there is growing concern that justice for the victims of the war is being be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.
On Monday, Uganda's government announced it will begin peace talks with Kony's group. Lord's Resistance Army negotiators have gathered in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba.
Museveni's government, however, has been wary of talks with the cult-like rebel force.