Although an attempt by the Ugandan army to wipe out the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has brought some battlefield successes, it has also served to radicalise the group further, and has coincided with an upsurge in attacks in the north.
On the positive side, the intensified military effort seems to have played a part in bringing the Ugandan and Sudanese governments closer together, with Sudan giving permission the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) to move into southern Sudan in an attempt to wipe out LRA rear bases there.
Diplomatic ties between Uganda and Sudan dramatically improved early in the year, and in March the two governments signed the military protocol allowing the UPDF onto Sudanese territory.
However, the military campaign, dubbed Operation Iron Fist, has not brought rapid solutions to the conflict in northern Uganda. In June, the LRA, under pressure in Sudan, slipped back into northern Ugandan, split into smaller groups and began to retaliate.
The intensified attacks provoked a fresh wave of internal displacement, and has strained ongoing relief efforts in the region, which are now trying to attend to the humanitarian needs of some 600,000 IDPs.
The renewed LRA attacks led to criticism from civil society groups of the Ugandan government's militaristic approach, with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), a leading mediation group, insisting the only way to end the conflict was through dialogue.
However, Ugandan army spokesman, Shaban Bantariza, claims Operation Iron Fist has achieved a good measure of success. One significant sign of success, he says, can be found in a big reduction in the number of LRA combatants from an original estimate of 3,000 to less than 1,000.
Sudan and Uganda first broke off diplomatic relations in 1995, with each accusing the other of arming and supporting rebel groups.
Bantariza attributes this reduction to the intensified security operations in which many rebels were killed, captured or pressured into surrendering. "Based on the statistics on the ground, you can say that Operation Iron Fist was successful. The group which is fighting now is much less than before," Bantariza said. "It is long since we had a serious attack or road ambushes."
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who himself was camped for almost six months in Gulu, the main town in the north, to personally supervise the project, has instructed the army to work towards wiping out the rebel movement by the end of the dry season in 2003, which usually falls between April and May.
The LRA has since the mid-eighties engaged the Ugandan government in a low-intensity war, characterised by the killing and abduction of civilians and their forcible recruitment into the rebel army.
The Abducted Children Registration and Information System (ACRIS), a database documenting cases of child abduction by the LRA, estimates that over 26,000 children have been abducted by the LRA over the years.
Some tensions remain
Kampala has expressed confidence in Khartoum's willingness to allow the UPDF to continued to operate on Sudanese territory, possibly until the LRA is wiped out. "Sudan has stated in categorical terms that the question of renewal of the protocol is really a foregone conclusion," Bantariza claimed.
However, Sirajudin Hamid, Sudanese ambassador in Kampala told IRIN that, as much as relations had improved between the two countries, Khartoum was still unhappy about Uganda's perceived failure to make a "meaningful commitment" to stem support for the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
Hamid claimed that many illicit small arms and heavy weapons, such as tanks and armoured vehicles, came into Sudan across the Ugandan border. He said that military officials of the two countries had made a plan to inspect and monitor the border areas as part of the initiative to control the flow of illicit weapons from Uganda into Sudan.
"This is important for the security of both countries. The Sudan government knows in detail what is going on. We don't want this to be a source of cold war between the two countries," Hamid said.
"It is up to Uganda. They are a sovereign state, we do not want to dictate to them, but we believe that they have politicians with a clear vision of the benefits of improving bilateral relations and mutual cooperation," he added.
The Ugandan government has said that it has ended assistance to the SPLM/A, but has admitted providing "moral support" and "humanitarian assistance" to the group in the past.
According to Hamid, future cooperation between the two countries will depend on the decisions made at a joint ministerial commission, comprising relevant government officials from both countries, who are expected to meet between 6 February and 9 February, after which a protocol spelling out the terms of future cooperation would be signed.
"Other areas of cooperation between the two sides will emerge after the joint ministerial commission. If there is an agreement, then there is plenty the two countries can do together that will be mutually beneficial to them," he said.
Kony interest in peace talks
On the other hand, latest media reports from Uganda say LRA head, Joseph Kony, has suggested he would be prepared to start peace talks with the government. On 11 January, he reportedly spoke to Nobert Mao, the Gulu Municipality representative in parliament, who is also a member of a six-member team selected by the government to negotiate peace with LRA.
Kony expressed interest in holding ceasefire talks with the UPDF, and also invited Acholi military leaders to visit him in the bush, the New Vision reported recently. He accused Museveni of being an obstacle to peace and said he would only talk in the presence of a third-party mediator of international standing, Mao told The New Vision.
He said he would be prepared to send a military delegation to meet a UPDF team outside Uganda to discuss ceasefire proposals and the possible movement of scattered LRA forces to agreed locations, but not locations already proposed by Museveni, which he referred to as "traps", the newspaper reported.
A week earlier Kony had reportedly telephoned a radio station in northern Uganda to say he was ready to enter peace talks with the Ugandan government. "I want genuine peace talks with government. I initiated a ceasefire, but it is government which seems to work against peace," he was quoted as saying by telephone to the Mega FM radio station, based in Gulu.
Authorities in Kampala, however, are treating Kony's gesture with scepticism, saying the rebel leader, who seeks to replace Museveni's government with one based on the Biblical Ten Commandments, was not trustworthy.
According to Bantariza, Kony is reaching out because "things are not going well for him", rather than out of a genuine interest in peace. "Kony wants to talk, but not out of the realisation that it is wrong to kill innocent people. He has done the same thing before, but broke his own promises," he said.
The peace team which Museveni established in November is headed by Uganda's first deputy prime minister, Eriya Kategeya. On establishing the team, Museveni spelled out terms for talks, which included a proposal for the LRA to retreat to three of their bases in southern Sudan, and to prepare for talks, which would take place in Uganda. He also called for a ceasefire and urged the group to stop killing civilians. The LRA leadership, however, rejected the first two proposals.
Karamoja disarmament uncertain
Another major challenge for the Ugandan government in 2003 will be its handling of the disarmament programme it began in December 2001 in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda.
The Karamojong, a traditionally pastoralist group living in the northeastern Ugandan districts of Kotido and Moroto, have often been accused of raiding neighbouring districts, causing displacement and human suffering.
In December 2001, Museveni personally travelled to the region and launched a voluntary disarmament programme. The Ugandan army, however, began to forcibly disarm the Karamojong following expiry of a 15 February deadline.
How successful the disarmament programme has been is unclear, especially in the light of fears raised by recent raids by suspected Kenyan cattle rustlers taking advantage of the unarmed Karamojong.
Bantariza said that, although the disarmament operation in the Karamoja sub-region was continuing via both forcible means and persuasion, and had reached 70 percent completion, 100 percent success would only be possible with greater regional cooperation.
"People are being educated on the importance of disarming. But we need regional cooperation. Recently, we have seen a lot of attacks on Karamoja. Now the Karamojong feel disadvantaged. They are very apprehensive and some might refuse to disarm," he told IRIN.
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