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Uganda Expands Militias Following Deadly Rebel Attacks

The Ugandan government says it is expanding local militias and sheltering people in security camps, following five days of rebel attacks that killed more than 60 people in northern Uganda. But churches object to arming civilians.

A spokesman for the Ugandan army, Major Shaban Bantariza, says local defense units maintain peace and security in troubled areas in the north, freeing up the army to hunt down rebels belonging to the Lord's Resistance Army.

Local civic leaders recruit young people who are trained by the army, given weapons and deployed into areas where the rebels strike. Major Bantariza estimates there are more than 10,000 members of this militia in the Acholi area of northern Uganda. "Their job is protecting infrastructure: the people, the roads, the medical centers, schools, and so on," said Major Bantariza. "We still have some more to arm."

He said the government is planning to expand and form more of these local militias, which also gather intelligence for the army. He says without the militias, the army would need to have 100,000 extra troops to fight the rebel group. People can also move to camps guarded by the army, he adds.

But the government's strategy of arming civilians came under fire Sunday by the head of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, Catholic Archbishop John Odama of Gulu.

Efforts by VOA to reach Archbishop Odama were unsuccessful.

Archbishop Odama told the AFP news agency that arming civilians would make them more of a target for the rebels and would continue the cycle of violence in the north. He said the rebel group would see the policy as a "widespread threat" and prompt them to depict everyone as a potential enemy.

Tightened security in Uganda's north follows several rebel attacks last week in which many civilians were killed. There were some reports of people being beheaded by the rebels.

The rebels have been waging a civil war in northern Uganda for the past 16 years. Their leader, Joseph Kony, calls himself a prophet and once claimed he wanted to form a society based on the biblical Ten Commandments. But his motives for fighting are unclear.

Archbishop Odama and other religious leaders urged the government and rebels to try once more to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

The United Nations has said it is prepared to sponsor peace talks between the government and the rebels.