UNITED NATIONS, Oct 18 (Reuters) – Peace talks with brutal Uganda guerrillas to end 19 years of civil war may yet be possible despite international arrest warrants against their leaders, the mediator between the government and the rebels said on Tuesday.
Betty Bigombe, a former Ugandan minister who tried for years to persuade the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to end 19 years of abducting, raping and killing children, said she had thought recent arrest warrants by the new International Criminal Court would wreck any chances for negotiations.
But now Bigombe said, “I am in the process of analyzing and understanding what is doable and what is not doable, what factors can we use to bring out those that are not indicted.”
“I am looking at the possibility of restarting the peace process,” she told a news conference.
Bigombe was appealing to key diplomats and U.N. officials for help in presenting a peace plan to LRA followers. Other speakers at the news conference hoped for U.N. pressure on Uganda’s army to step up patrols and on Sudan, where the LRA is based.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court this month announced its first indictments against five LRA commanders, including the leader, Joseph Kony.
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Kony’s insurgency has devastated northern Uganda, and uprooted more than 1.6 million people. His rebels have kidnapped more than 20,000 children and turned them into fighters or sex slaves. He has 32 “wives,” among the young girls he raped.
Carol Bellamy, former head of UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, told the news conference that childhood had been stolen from thousands of children, who walk miles at night to makeshift shelters. Few go to school and mortality was high.
While the issue has been raised for years by such agencies as UNICEF, Uganda has not allowed involvement by the U.N. Security Council.
One reason, diplomats say, is that its army has been accused by rights groups of rape, beatings and pillaging in a region traditionally opposed to President Yoweri Museveni.
Olara Otunnu, a northern Ugandan and the former U.N. envoy for children in war zones, characterized the battle against the LRA as a pretext to subjugate people in the north by herding them into 135 camps and stealing their livestock.
He said that the situation “should be deemed as genocide” with 1,000 people dying each week. Secretary-General Kofi Annan should lead a campaign to stop it as well as the brutalities of the LRA, Otunnu said.
John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group think tank, who has been helping Bigombe, said the international community could assist in a peace plan and put pressure on Sudan, where the LRA has its base.
“Now is the time to press forward with a peace proposal that would end the war once and for all,” Prendergast said. But he acknowledged no one knew how Kony “would be neutralized” — by death, capture or agreeing to a peace deal — so all three had to be pursued.
He said the Uganda government was protected by African nations, who did not want any issue that could violate sovereignty raised in the Security Council. And he said the United States respected Uganda’s support for counterterrorism and the Iraq and Afghanistan war.
“Therefore, the United States is not going to challenge Museveni on this question in northern Uganda,” he said.
Bigombe, who has spent her own funds to pursue talks and had made contact with Kony, said Kony’s possible arrest would weaken his movement but not extinguish it. For example, his security chief, now about 28, was abducted when he was 11 and “all he knows is Kony and violence.”
“I am not opposed to the International Criminal Court intervention, but the question is whether this will bring long-lasting peace in northern Uganda,” she said.