GULU, Uganda, July 25 (Reuters) - Cult-like fighters kidnap thousands of children and force them to wage a brutal insurgency across northern Uganda.
The rebels have no clear political goals, but they have killed tens of thousands in 19 years of war and triggered one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes.
On the face of things, this is an ideal first test for the new International Criminal Court (ICC).
Analysts say it expected local applause for launching an investigation last July into atrocities by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and its elusive leader Joseph Kony.
But one year on -- with arrest warrants for the self-styled mystic and five of his commanders expected to be issued next month -- the probe remains controversial, and Ugandans are divided over what impact it will have on the war.
"My fear is the rebels will go on the rampage and kill," said Betty Bigombe, a former government minister who set up landmark face-to-face talks with LRA officers late last year.
She said a warrant makes it no more likely Kony will be caught, but it guarantees he will never give up his campaign.
"The international community needs to review whether the ICC should intervene in an ongoing conflict," she told Reuters.
Contacting the rebels became much harder amid renewed fighting after the LRA's key negotiator surrendered in February.
Bigombe said ICC indictments would end her mission entirely.
Many in the north share her fears, and say since Uganda's army has failed to beat the rebels, talks and a long-standing government amnesty offer are the only way to free the hundreds of children still held captive as LRA fighters and sex slaves.
Many residents are even prepared to forgive the rebels, who come from the same Acholi tribe. They say their concept of atonement is based on clan rituals -- not prison sentences.
"Most people still believe the traditional mechanisms provide a longer, much more healing process than the Western model, particularly the type pushed by the ICC," said Zachary Lomo, director of Uganda's Refugee Law Project.
Lomo said few victims of the conflict knew much about the ICC, which he accused of not acting transparently.
"Some people see it as this all-powerful animal with American military power that is going to come and get Kony for them. If only they knew it was just powerless bureaucrats sitting in The Hague, they would be so disappointed."
Supporters of arrest warrants say the rebels must be held accountable, and that Acholi healing ceremonies like Mato-Oput -- where elders decide compensation before both parties are blessed and share a symbolic drink -- are not enough.
"Aren't we trying to romanticise the past?" asked Paul Omach, political scientist and senior lecturer at Uganda's Makerere University. "That is a very dangerous proposition because it neglects that this is a war that is national in nature and has international dimensions."
Kony is believed to be hiding in the mountains of southern Sudan where his fighters also terrorise remote communities. Analysts say his jailing could boost reconstruction efforts there after a separate decades-long civil war there.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni appealed to the ICC for help in December 2003, but has since seemed less enthusiastic, saying that if Kony asked for forgiveness he would tell Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo Uganda had solved its problem.
The ICC says no indictments have been issued yet, but diplomats say drafts were passed to the court's pre-trial chamber for final approval in mid-June.
"We are nearing the completion of the investigation stage, but to date that stage continues and we do not comment on ongoing investigations," said a spokesman for Ocampo's office.
The court can only investigate crimes committed after it was set up in 2002, and has so far focused on Africa
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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