LRA’s Joseph Kony: First sight of rebel leader in 20 years

First sight of rebel leader in 20 years as he tries to broker deal to end bloodshed in Uganda

The tall, slim Ugandan glanced suspiciously at the delegates gathered around him, his general’s uniform rustling as he shifted uneasily on a plastic chair.

While cold and authoritative – a single glance could send a gun-toting minion scurrying to obey an order – the jet-black eyes of Joseph Kony were also fearful: those of a man who knows he is Africa’s most wanted fugitive.

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After two decades of bloodshed and brutality, the self-styled prophet and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), emerged last week from the tropical jungle that straddles southern Sudan’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and said he was ready for peace talks with the Kampala government.

About 100 of his troops stood silently and watched their leader with awe. Although dressed in uniforms and heavily armed with rifles, machine-guns and even rocket launchers, they were all young – some were little more than 12 years old. They hung on their leader’s every word.

“We from the Lord’s Resistance Army want peace,” Kony said quietly, in heavily accented English. “But we first want protection. I want to be able to move freely.”

Kony and his representatives briefly came out of hiding last week to meet Sudanese officials and discuss the possibility of peace talks between the LRA and President Yoweri Museveni’s Ugandan government, to be held in the southern Sudanese town of Juba.

That Kony had also agreed to be interviewed by Western journalists, for the first time in 20 years, showed the seriousness with which he was contemplating an end to his killing campaign, which has plagued northern Uganda for a generation and more recently spread to southern Sudan and the DRC.

“Kony knows he is cornered,” a source close to the talks told The Sunday Telegraph. “If the situation continues, he knows that within three or four years he will be finished.”

The cult-like LRA has become notorious for massacring thousands of civilians, mutilating survivors, burning villages and kidnapping 10,000 children, who have been forced to serve as soldiers, slaves or concubines.

Their plundering of northern Uganda has prompted as many as two million people to flee their villages for sanctuary in government camps.

During the Sudanese civil war, which was officially brought to a close by the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement last year, the LRA was allowed to roam unhindered throughout southern Sudan.

Since the signing of the agreement, however, south Sudan’s government has allowed Mr Museveni to send in 10,000 troops to hunt down, arrest or kill LRA fighters.

“If President Museveni really wants an end to the war, why is he arresting my followers who want to take part in my peace delegation?” asked Kony.

“Museveni’s claim that he wants to meet us is a lie. The LRA wants peace, but Museveni still wants war. I am waiting for [the southern Sudan’s government] initiative to start peace negotiations”.

Despite having no clear political aims, the LRA has stated that it wants to rule Uganda by the Ten Commandments. The elusive Kony, aged around 40, was formerly a Roman Catholic altar boy.

He appears to believe that his role is to cleanse the Acholi people, the northern tribe which felt excluded from power after the 1986 overthrow of Milton Obote, himself an Acholi, by Mr Museveni.

Kony is said to insist that his followers read the Bible, and child soldiers who have escaped from the clutches of the LRA have claimed that Kony is possessed by spirits who speak in God’s name.

To the International Criminal Court (ICC), however, the LRA is a terrorist group and last year the court issued its first arrest warrants for Kony and other LRA leaders.

Last week the British Government offered to lock up another notorious African leader, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, if he is convicted of war crimes at his trial in The Hague.

Lord Triesman, the minister for African affairs, named Kony as another whose trial would send a clear signal to Africa that there is no escape from justice for war criminals.

Kony’s critics argue that he is not serious about peace talks and is merely buying time to re-group his troops, said to number no more than 5,000, in neighbouring DRC.

“We want our troops, who are spread around northern Uganda and southern Sudan, to meet 10 hours’ walk from here,” said Vincent Otti, Kony’s deputy, who is widely considered to be the LRA’s strategic mastermind and has also been named in an ICC warrant.

But a request for south Sudan’s government to guarantee safe passage for LRA troops travelling to the DRC was rejected by Riek Machar Teny, the vice-president of the semi-autonomous region.

Members of the UN Security Council warned Mr Riek last week that a possible amnesty for Kony could not be discussed, so the LRA leader will not be able to take part in negotiations himself.

At the close of their meeting, the LRA presented the Sudanese with a list of 14 delegation members. Although written on a grubby page ripped from an exercise book, the list was signed by Kony and Otti and gave delegates a mandate to negotiate on their behalf.

The paranoia among the LRA leaders was palpable, however, and as Kony slipped back into the jungle, the prospects for reaching a lasting peace agreement seemed as elusive as the man himself.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Telegraph, UK
June 18, 2006
Koert Lindijer in Southern Sudan and Michael Hirst
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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday June 18, 2006.
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