JUBA, Sudan, July 19 (Reuters) – Uganda rejected calls for a ceasefire from Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels on Wednesday during peace talks to end one of Africa’s longest and most brutal conflicts.
“In the past when we have declared a ceasefire, the LRA has used these moments to recruit, reorganise, treat their sick and loot food,” the head of Uganda’s delegation, Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, told a news conference.
“While we also want a cessation of hostilities, we think it should come after everything else has been concluded,” Rugunda said at the negotiations being mediated by the southern Sudanese government.
Underlying the urgency of the talks, Uganda’s army said six LRA rebels died in fresh fighting on Monday in the north, where the cult-like rebels began their insurgency in 1987.
A ceasefire had been the first item on the agenda at tentative discussions between the two sides that began on Sunday in Juba, capital of neighbouring southern Sudan.
The rebels and mediators did not immediately comment on the government’s statement.
The LRA’s two-decade insurgency has killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted nearly two million in northern Uganda, as well as destabilising southern Sudan.
The sides appear completely at odds — the government offering amnesty in return for LRA surrender and the rebels demanding compensation and disbandment of Uganda’s army.
The discussions got off to a rocky start with the rebels accusing the government of gross corruption, ethnic and political persecution and regional warmongering.
“Kampala has always accused the LRA of bad faith during talks in the past, so I think they want to keep up the military pressure, especially since there could be a few weeks of this,” one Western diplomat said.
President Yoweri Museveni has set a Sept. 12 deadline for a deal to be reached.
The Ugandan delegation spokesman in Juba said they were waiting for the chief mediator, south Sudan’s vice-president Riek Machar, to set the next agenda item, and that talks on other issues were expected to resume later on Wednesday.
“We hope (the LRA) will understand our commitment to being here, and our reasons (for rejecting a ceasefire),” he said.
Uganda’s government had wanted the LRA’s self-proclaimed mystical leader Joseph Kony to attend the talks in person, or at least the group’s deputy commander, Vincent Otti.
But both men are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and have so far remained in the lawless jungles of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where they crossed last year from camps in southern Sudan.
Their fighters are notorious for massacring civilians, mutilating survivors and abducting more than 20,000 children to use as fighters and sex slaves.
Additional reporting by Frank Nyakairu