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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Uganda military starts truce with LRA rebels

KAMPALA, Aug 29 (Reuters) - A truce between the Ugandan army and northern guerrillas reviled for their savagery and use of child soldiers started on Tuesday in what both sides say may mark the end of one of Africa's longest insurgencies.

Under the pact signed on Saturday at talks in southern Sudan, fugitive Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels have three weeks to assemble at two camps in southern Sudan while negotiations continue to end their two-decade insurrection.

Both sides have committed to cease hostilities, and a Ugandan military intelligence chief was due to announce safe passage routes for the rebels on the radio in the evening.

Fighters were not expected immediately to begin coming in from their bush hideouts.

"We are now entering a period of silence. We don't expect to hear any shooting in these areas," Deputy Defence Minister Ruth Nankabirwa told reporters in Uganda's capital Kampala.

Nearly two million people have been uprooted in northern Uganda by fighting between troops and the LRA, which won notoriety for massacring civilians, mutilating survivors and forcing thousands of abducted children to serve in its ranks.

The military said President Yoweri Museveni had ordered troops to halt all search and destroy missions and only to shoot at the LRA in defence of civilians or of themselves.

"We are in the process of pulling back to physical protection of displaced civilians," army spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye told Reuters. "Where there are no camps, we are returning to barracks. It seems to be the end of the war."


The LRA's top leaders, including Joseph Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti, are wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and have so far stayed hidden in Congo.

LRA officials have insisted both men will move to the Sudan camps within the three-week deadline.

"Time is not on their side," Museveni told reporters late on Monday. "If they don't show up, it will be worse for them. They have nowhere to hide."

ICC prosecutors said on Monday they still hoped for the arrest of Kony and his henchmen, despite an offer of amnesty by Uganda under the terms of the truce.

But with no police force to hunt down its targets, the ICC must rely on Ugandan, Sudanese and former southern Sudanese rebels to bring Kony and his deputies to justice.

Experts say if Kony and Otti leave Congo for the camps, it would be the biggest boost so far for negotiations, meaning the LRA was ready to sign a comprehensive peace agreement.

If the talks collapse, Saturday's deal lets the rebels leave the assembly areas, but diplomats say that is unlikely to happen -- especially if men wanted by The Hague are present.

"If Kony and Otti come, I think they will be the last ones to leave the bush, and that will be a very positive sign of their intentions," said a Ugandan military source.

The truce was given an extra boost on Sunday when Otti called a local radio station in northern Uganda and told fighters in the area to gather and await further instructions.
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