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Ugandan Rebels Declare Cease-Fire - 2003-03-05

Optimism is growing that 16 years of fighting in northern Uganda may soon come to an end. Rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army have declared a cease-fire and say they want to hold talks with the government of Yoweri Museveni.

The pledge by the Lord's Resistance Army to cease all ambushes, abductions and attacks has been welcomed by the Uganda government. President Museveni is now assembling a team that will hold face-to-face talks with the rebels.

There have been other moves toward peace during the 16 years of fighting in northern Uganda, but they all eventually collapsed. However, the political situation is different this time, which is why there is so much optimism that the beginning of the end of the long-running conflict may be near.

For one thing, the Lord's Resistance Army is in a tight corner.

Its bases in southern Sudan, just over the border from northern Uganda, have been destroyed by Ugandan troops following an agreement with the Sudanese government.

The rebels' main sources of food and military supplies are now back home in northern Uganda, making them much more vulnerable to attacks by government troops.

But there are also reasons for the government to negotiate. Analysts are saying that President Museveni could finally be realizing that, even with access to the rebel bases in Sudan, the military solution he once preferred is not going to succeed. He is now under enormous public pressure to try the path of a negotiated settlement.

Charles Onyango-Obbo, a Ugandan political analyst with the Nairobi-based East African newspaper, points to President Museveni's recent acceptance of a multi-party system in Uganda as a sign that he is now prepared to negotiate with his opponents, rather than trying to crush them.

"We are beginning to see for example a relaxation of the restriction of political party activities, and I think, if that is indicative, one would be inclined to think that the government is beginning to review its general approach toward many things. It is abandoning its almost strictly military line and also softening up politically," Mr. Onyango-Obbo said.

The Lord's Resistance Army is one of the world's most brutal rebel movements. It is notorious for kidnapping children and forcing them to become soldiers, porters or sex slaves. Its punishments are severe. It has gained a reputation for cutting off the lips of its enemies.

Though the LRA survives by looting and killing, it claims it wants to overthrow the Museveni government and replace it with a government based on the Ten Commandments of the Bible.

The main victims of the rebels have been the Acholi people of northern Uganda.

More than a million Acholi have moved to protected camps. As a result, they have not been able to plant their crops and hunger is widespread.

After suffering for so many years, Acholi leaders are desperate for peace and have been at the forefront of efforts to open up a dialogue with the rebels.

Lam Cosmos, a member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, said the rebels and the government both claim to share a common goal - to improve the lives of the Acholi people.

"If you hear the LRA talk, they say they are fighting for the good of the community and of course the government is trying to protect the community. So that now the big agenda is how do we alleviate the suffering of the people of northern Uganda? That is the big thing," he said.

While Mr. Onyango-Obbo agrees with this, he points out that the rebels will find it hard to carry out their promises to improve the lives of the Acholi.

"I think that the LRA, for sure, it feeds on the grievance of the fact that the north is marginalized and underdeveloped. Clearly what is not apparent is they don't actually have a plan to turn that into concrete political demands. So I think, at most, it's just an opportunistic organization," he said.

The biggest hurdle that the rebels and government have to overcome is to find a way to end the distrust that has built up between the two sides over the years.

But in the meantime, with peace talks yet to begin, military operations against the rebels will continue. Major Shaban Bantariza is a spokesman for the Ugandan army, or UPDF. He said that until he gets told otherwise, the army is going to continue hunting down the rebels.

"For us as an army, we are waiting for orders from our command. The cease-fire was definitely not offered to the UPDF, it was offered to the government. So those ones will tell us what to do, how to respond to that declaration. Until then, certainly, we must rescue people who have been kidnapped, we must ensure people are not ambushed and killed for nothing," Major Bantariza said.

Major Bantariza said though the rebels are talking about peace, they are also continuing to fight. He said within 24 hours of the rebels' cease-fire declaration on Sunday, they carried out an attack that injured three people.

Mr. Cosmos, the Acholi religious leader, says the only way to end the crisis of the Acholi, and of all the people in Uganda, is for President Museveni and Joseph Kony to negotiate a peace that will last.