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Ugandan Rebels, Government Meet to Begin Negotiations for Peace

The commanders of a rebel group operating in northern Uganda late Tuesday met with government officials and others in what is seen to be the first stage in negotiations to end almost two decades of insurgency.

For 18 years, the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, has been terrorizing people in northern Uganda, kidnapping more than 20,000 children, displacing more than 1.5 million, and maiming and killing thousands of local residents.

But at a meeting Tuesday evening in the northern town of Kitgum with members of parliament, clergy, local residents, international observers and others, the rebels said they want to stop the violence.

Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama attended the meeting, which he described, to be "frank, free, and friendly."

"The LRA also responded very positively, very strongly, saying that they are for peace talk[s]. This time they are meaning it, they are committed to it, and would expect that the government also should reciprocate," he said.

Archbishop Odama said the rebels called on the government to extend the geographical area and deadline of a cease-fire the government had enacted last month.

The cease-fire, which applies to a corridor near the Sudanese border, is supposed to expire by the end of Friday. The government had said the truce is meant to allow the rebels to gather in preparation for eventual peace negotiations.

Archbishop Odama said the rebels did not indicate at the meeting why they are fighting. At one time, rebel leader Joseph Kony had said his group wanted to rule Uganda according to the Biblical Ten Commandments, but its motives for fighting now are unclear.

Over the years, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to hold peace talks between the government and the rebels to end the violence.

Archbishop Odama said there were indications that Tuesday's meeting has laid the groundwork for future negotiations with the government.

"From what we saw, there is a lot of goodwill - we saw a lot of goodwill for [a] peaceful solution of this problem. Peaceful talk, peaceful negotiation is the best solution. It saves lives, it saves property, and it heals the society," said Archbishop Odama.

A former minister, Betty Bigombe, has been spearheading efforts to bring the two parties together. She told VOA Wednesday she is meeting with government officials to plan follow-up meetings.

Ugandan presidential spokesman Francis Onapito Ekomoloit said his government has always been willing to talk to the LRA, but the rebel group has not shown that it is serious about ending the conflict.

"The major condition given by the president [Yoweri Museveni] when he declared the limited cease-fire was for the LRA to assemble in a particular area," said Mr. Ekomoloit. "So far they have responded in a lukewarm and rather mixed way. The government is patient enough hoping that they can get together and talk to the government."

Mr. Ekomoloit said the government is waiting for LRA leader Kony and other top rebels to appear for face-to-face talks.