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Activists Urge US To Press for End To Conflict in Northern Uganda

Hundreds of activists have gathered in Washington to call on the U.S. government to do more to end the conflict in northern Uganda, one of Africa's most intractable wars.

Among those appealing for stepped up U.S. pressure to end the 20-year conflict is Grace Akallo, a former Ugandan child soldier who was abducted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army a decade ago. She described her harrowing ordeal at a news conference. "In captivity, I was marched into Sudan, forced to use guns to commit atrocities against other children, to attack villages and to steal. I was used and abused by the rebels, and at times I wished it would just end, even if meant the end of my life," she said.

But Akallo was one of the lucky ones, as she survived.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict, and nearly two million more have been displaced.

Akallo, who is now 26 years old, urged U.S. government officials to pay greater attention to the situation. "Today I am asking the administration to pressure the government of Sudan to stop supporting the Lord's Resistance Army, and to pressure the government of Uganda to fully commit to these peace talks in Northern Uganda. Today I am asking the Congress to support my people as they return to their villages with development assistance, psychological care, especially for the children, who have been forced to see and experience so much violence and brutality, and with training, so we can build our region," she said.

Akallo was joined by the leader of the ethnic Acholi people in northern Uganda, paramount chief David Acana. "The United States must break its silence and support our chance for peace," he said.

Also at the news conference was Betty Bigombe, former chief mediator at peace talks between the Ugandan government and the rebels. "The peace process is in a fragile state," she said.

The Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army signed a truce in August, but have since accused each other of violations.

The rebels also say they will not sign a peace deal with the government unless officials drop international arrest warrants issued for rebel leaders. The International Criminal Court has indicted four of the rebel group's top commanders for war crimes.

Despite the setbacks, John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization that studies global conflict, believes the peace talks can succeed - but not without critical support from the United States. "A deal is possible, but it won't happen without sustained and high-level U.S. engagement," he said.

Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and chairman of a House of Representatives panel on Africa, Global Human rights and International Operations, says Congress is concerned about what is happening in Northern Uganda. "This terrible, despicable war must end," he said.

Congressman Smith has introduced legislation that would impose sanctions on countries where children are forced to become soldiers.