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UN Humanitarian Chief Sees Improvement in War-Ravaged Northern Uganda

The top U.N. humanitarian affairs official says there has been dramatic improvement in northern Uganda since the start of peace talks to end nearly 20 years of devastating civil war.

U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland says until recently northern Uganda was the world's most neglected emergency.

"It was surprising how little we heard about the 20,000 kidnapped children and the nearly two million displaced people,l" he said. "Mortality was higher last year in northern Uganda than it was in Darfur on average."

Egeland told VOA in an interview that real progress is under way in the war-battered region of Uganda.

"300,000 [people] have returned to their homes in the last few months. Hundreds of thousands are preparing to return [home] in the next few months. We have had the highest degree of security and quiet in northern Uganda in this year, 2006, than in any of these recent, terrible years for northern Uganda," he said.

Egeland credits African mediated peace talks between the Ugandan government and rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army for bringing results to the local Acholi people. The war has been notorious for repeated rebel attacks against civilians living in crowded camps, including abductions, forced conscription, and sexual violence.

The southern Sudanese government has been hosting peace talks in Juba to build on a cease-fire deal agreed to in August.

Egeland has made the Uganda conflict one of his primary campaigns during his three years as U.N. emergency relief coordinator. He has made numerous trips to the region, and brought notice to the conflict.

During a trip last month to northern Uganda, Egeland spent a night with a family in a displaced-persons camp.

"It was a very moving thing that I could now stay a night in a hut of one of the families in one of these very crowded displacement camps," he said. "Because it has become much more safe than it was. Before we could only go for a few hours during daylight. Now, I could spend the night around the fireplace, exchanging stories and talking about the future with the displaced. And hearing that they now were planning to return home, and that they said, 'Help us bring this war to an end.'"

Earlier this year, Egeland described the activities of Ugandan rebels as "terrorism of the worst kind anywhere in the world."

Despite that characterization, Egeland says, the world - including the European Union and the United States - must work with Ugandan rebels and the government to find a lasting solution to the war to avoid further bloodshed.