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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Uganda rebels quit assembly areas agreed to in truce

KAMPALA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army rebels said on Thursday they have left two assembly points in southern Sudan set up under a landmark truce with the Ugandan government, fearing for their safety.

LRA spokesman Godfrey Ayoo said the rebels would never resume negotiations in south Sudan's capital, Juba, despite claims by the chief mediator, south Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, that they were due to do so this week.

A truce renewed in December gave the rebels until last month to gather in two places in south Sudan -- Owiny-Ki-Bul, on the Uganda border and Ri-Kwangba, on the Democratic Republic of Congo border.

Ayoo said both groups had dispersed and the LRA's top leaders were back in their jungle hideouts in the DRC.

"We withdrew from Ri-Kwangba because of security concerns, so we are back in Congo," he said. "The group in Owiny-Ki-Bul has scattered in southern Sudan."

Ayoo was talking by phone from Nairobi. LRA delegates have refused to return to Juba since Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir threatened to "get rid of the LRA from Sudan".

The Juba peace talks had raised hopes of an end to two decades of conflict in northern Uganda that have killed tens of thousands and displaced 1.7 million people.

But the truce expires at the end of this month, with no agreement on when the two sides will meet to extend it.

Uganda accuses the rebels of repeatedly failing to assemble in agreed locations, which the rebels deny. Government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Machar told Reuters on Tuesday he expected LRA delegates back in Juba this week to set a date for resuming talks.

"Our position has not changed," Ayoo said. "We are not going back there (to southern Sudan). We are fully united in the search for a new venue."

The Ugandan government has said it will not move the venue.

But Ayoo said the LRA would keep their guns silent, even if the truce expires. The government has made similar comments.

Many Ugandans fear the LRA will never sign a peace deal unless the International Criminal Court in the Hague drops indictments against its top leaders for war crimes like rape, mutilation and abducting children to use as fighters.
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