Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has ordered his army to end fighting against the rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA), as a ceasefire agreement signed Saturday came into effect. Both sides have said this development could signal the end of the brutal 18-year conflict.
The bilateral ceasefire agreement was signed by the government and rebel delegations in the southern Sudanese city of Juba on Saturday. The deal gives rebels three weeks to gather at two assembly points in largely uninhabited areas across the border in southern Sudan, where they will be protected and monitored.
Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF) spokesman Major Felix Kulaije said the army has begun to facilitate the movement of the Lords Resistance Army.
"The UPDF has been directed to create safe corridors for the Lords Resistance Army rebels to move to their assembly point," he explained. "Equally, the UPDF shall withdraw from the operation areas to their barracks or the protection of IDP camps."
The Lord's Resistance Army was formed from the remnants of a northern Uganda rebellion that began in 1986 after President Museveni, a southerner, overthrew a military junta. LRA leader Joseph Kony mixed northern politics with religious mysticism, declaring himself a Christian prophet fighting to rule Uganda by the Ten Commandments.
U.N. officials estimate the guerrillas kidnapped about 20,000 children during the past 18 years, turning the boys into soldiers and the girls into sex slaves for rebel commanders. Rebel attacks drove nearly two million people to flee their homes.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four other rebel leaders, but the Ugandan government has promised not to turn them over in return for an end to the insurgency, which has killed thousands of civilians. An exact death toll is not known.
Kony, who has been seen in public only a handful of times during the insurgency, says he is innocent of the war crimes and crimes against humanity charges.
Political editor of Uganda's best selling newspaper The Monitor, Charles Mwanguhya, told VOA the feeling in Uganda is that there is hope this peace deal will hold. He says the Acholi people in Northern Uganda, whom the rebels have largely targeted in their brutal campaign, have led the push to reject the International Court warrants.
"The people from northern Uganda are all saying we can do without the ICC, we can wait for justice," he noted. "And actually last week there was a comment about resorting to the traditional justice system in northern Uganda. There are ways the rebels can be cleansed, punished and reintegrated into society without necessarily going through a long process of the ICC, which they think will end up pushing the rebels away and pushing the conflict to continue."
Little is know about the rebel movement's strength. Estimates on the number of guerrillas range from 500 to 5,000. They are split into dozens of small groups, each raiding villages for supplies and rarely fighting government troops directly.