NAIROBI, 27 April 2007 (IRIN) - The resumption of talks between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) may end one of Africa's most brutal conflicts, but it is too early to write off the rebels, a global think-tank has warned.
The process should also lead to the economic empowerment of affected populations to redress Uganda's north-south divide and break the cycle of conflict, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said.
The talks resumed in Juba, southern Sudan, after a meeting between the rebels, mediators and Ugandan officials near the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The meeting also extended an earlier cessation of hostilities agreement to June, giving the rebels six weeks to assemble at Ri-Kwangba.
"Do not let this opportunity go," Joachim Chissano, the United Nations special envoy said at the opening of the talks on Thursday, attended by top southern Sudanese officials. "This is valid for the government team too. Do not lose this opportunity."
Uganda's delegation to Juba is led by internal affairs minister Ruhakana Rugunda while the LRA is led by Martin Ojul.
The ICG, however, said in a report that the resumption of the process as previously constituted would be a recipe for failure.
"It is hamstrung by major weaknesses in representation, structure and substance," the report, issued on Thursday, said. "And the Juba negotiations are the wrong forum for tackling the underlying economic, political, and social problems of northern Uganda."
Titled: 'Northern Uganda: Seizing the Opportunity for Peace', the report said the process should proceed along two tracks - one in Juba concentrating on ending the military conflict and providing a roadmap for handling broader grievances, including accountability for serious crimes.
The second track is one to which the Ugandan government and donors should commit at Juba but then pursue subsequently in a broader, more inclusive forum in Uganda. "It will need to empower northern Ugandans, involving, among others, Acholi traditional leaders and civil society, including women and youth, to steer redevelopment, rehabilitation, and reconciliation initiatives within their community," the ICG said.
Noting that the LRA had mostly moved away from northern Uganda and "seems to have little appetite for confrontation", the report, however, warned that the rebels had not been defeated yet.
"Reports from visitors to its Garamba base suggest morale is high and few fighters see much incentive to return to northern Uganda's squalor," it noted.
According to the ICG, a unit reportedly trekked to the Central African Republic (CAR) to receive ammunition from northern Sudan and its local rebel allies. The rebels, who are based in Congo, northwest of Garamba National Park, have established a village, with a school, and cultivated fields.
It estimated the rebel strength at 800-1,000, divided into three main groups: 200-300 remaining in Eastern Equatoria, 400 based west of Garamba and a reserve force of four columns moving between the Garamba base and the CAR border.
"Protected by Congo's forests, the LRA remains a credible cross-border threat," the report explained. "Since the start of the peace process, Crisis Group has verified at least two occasions when it attempted to send fighters into northern Uganda."
It noted that the LRA had used the talks to collect food, material and money and reestablish diaspora support, and was still trying to recruit captured fighters now living in Gulu.
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