LRA Rejects Plea to Free Captives

Rebels dismiss government appeal for the release of people held against their will.

LRA Rejects Plea to Free Captives

Rebels dismiss government appeal for the release of people held against their will.

Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, insurgents have said they will only release thousands of captured women and children after a final peace agreement with the government.

The government has appealed to the LRA high command based in its main Garamba National Park forest base, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, to free people who are being held against their will.

But in a satellite telephone interview with IWPR, the LRA’s second-in-command Vincent Otti said the captives would only be allowed to emerge from bush hideouts alongside rebel soldiers once the fighting is officially over.

Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni referred the country's 21-year civil war in the north to the International Criminal Court in December 2003. In July 2005, the ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo issued arrest warrants for five senior LRA figures - its leader Joseph Kony and top commanders Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. Lukwiya died in combat last year. The LRA leaders are accused of abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation and the killing of civilians.

“We are not going to release anybody,” Otti told IWPR. “For what purpose would the rest of us be left behind? We are all going to come out together after the signing of the peace agreement. We are currently talking peace.

“Why should we release the children? Have they been in prison? The children we have here [in the bush] are our own children. They were born in the bush.”

Reacting to Otti’s remarks, the deputy leader of the government delegation at the peace talks, Henry Okello Oryem, who is also he minister for international relations, said, “It’s the wish and the prayer of the government of Uganda for the LRA to release all children, women and any other persons in captivity against their will.”

Speaking to IWPR from Juba, the South Sudan capital where the peace negotiations are taking place, he added, “The LRA should release these children so that they go back to school and the women so they can be reintegrated with their families.”

A recent report documenting violence in the two decades-long conflict in northern Uganda said that as many as 38,000 children and 37,000 adults have been abducted and forced to join the rebels. The report, entitled Abduction: the Lord's Resistance Army and Forced Conscription in Northern Uganda, was compiled by researchers from the University of California Berkeley's Human Rights Centre and Tulane University's Centre for International Development.

“More work is needed to identify the number of people who have gone missing in northern Uganda and to investigate their whereabouts," said the report. "Cross-cultural studies have shown that most families wish to know the fate of their missing relatives and, if they have died, to receive their remains.”

Uganda’s human rights commissioner Veronica Bichetero Eragu met Otti in an undisclosed location on June 22 in a bid to secure the release of women and children still held captive by the LRA.

“The objective was: how do we handle these people when the time comes for them to go home?” said Bichetero Eragu. “We need to prepare them for life after the final ceasefire. How do they melt back into society? Some might need to go back to school, while others might need vocational education.

“He (Otti) encouraged me to make a follow-up. So the door is open for further discussion and consultation.”

Otti, in his conversation by satellite phone with IWPR, said children who have been abducted by the rebels are now adolescents or older, and some have become fathers. “We don’t have children here. Those whom we abducted are no longer children. They are now grown-ups,” he said.

The Berkeley-Tulane Universites report noted that the majority of former abductees who escape and are admitted to government and non-government organisation reception centres in northern Uganda are between ten and 18 years old. Female escapees tend to be older, between 19 to 3. They stayed longer with the LRA than males, serving as long-term sexual partners and fearing to risk escape for the sake of their children.

“Women forced to serve as ‘wives’ are likely to be kept in encampments and villages located a distance from combat zones, offering less opportunity to escape, surrender or be captured by [Ugandan] army troops,” said the report.

Otti said the rebels will continue with the Juba peace talks, but say there can be no final peace deal until the arrest warrants against LRA leaders are withdrawn. “The indictments in The Hague are the major obstacle to the peace process. We shall continue with the talks as we wait for ICC to drop the charges,” said Otti.

Talks between the two sides began in July 2006, raising hopes for an end to a civil war that has displaced nearly two million people and resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths.

Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

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