JUBA, Sudan, Aug 26 (Reuters) – Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels agreed on Saturday to leave their hideouts and assemble at two south Sudanese camps in a major breakthrough in efforts to end one of Africa’s longest wars, mediators said.
Under a deal with Uganda’s government that commits both sides to cease all attacks and hostile propaganda, LRA fighters now have three weeks to gather at the two locations while talks continue to end their two-decade insurgency.
“We hope that now the two principals will take action so that the guns can go silent,” said the chief mediator, southern Sudan’s Vice-President Riek Machar, referring to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and LRA commander Joseph Kony.
The deal is due to take effect at 0600 GMT on Aug. 29.
After that, LRA rebels based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and northern Uganda will move to the assembly points where they will be monitored by southern Sudanese forces.
Guerrillas in Congo agreed to gather at Ri-Kwangba, close to Sudan’s western border with DRC, while those in Uganda will travel to Owiny-ki-Bul, east of the Nile near Sudan’s border with Uganda, according to a copy of the deal seen by Reuters.
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Once the deal takes effect, it said, Uganda’s military would guarantee the LRA in Uganda safe passage across the border.
“In the event of failure of the peace talks, the LRA shall be allowed to leave the assembly areas peacefully,” it added.
Uganda’s government had earlier said it would only sign a truce as part of a comprehensive peace agreement, accusing the rebels of using previous deals to regroup, recruit and re-arm.
If the rebels — including Kony and his deputies — make it to the assembly points within the three week deadline, that would go a long way to soothing those fears, observers say.
Talks began on July 14 in south Sudan’s capital Juba aimed at brokering an end to the rebels’ brutal insurrection, which has killed tens of thousands, uprooted nearly 2 million people in northern Uganda alone and destabilised southern Sudan.
Kampala has offered amnesty to the LRA’s leaders, who are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and have not joined the talks, remaining at their jungle base in Congo.
The LRA entered DRC last year from hideouts in south Sudan.
A week ago, Museveni said Congo’s leaders had agreed to let Ugandan forces attack the rebels there if the talks fail.
The LRA’s agreement on Saturday was seen as a major step forward in the talks, which had been hindered by the absence of Kony and other top rebels wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by international prosecutors in The Hague.
The LRA is notorious for targeting civilians, mutilating survivors — often by cutting off their lips or ears — and for kidnapping thousands of children to serve the cult-like movement as fighters, porters or sex slaves.
As the negotiations took place in Juba, sporadic fighting continued in northern Uganda, where the military said it killed more than a dozen LRA fighters it accused of breaking their own Aug. 4 truce, including one of the five wanted by the ICC.