Uganda: Frustration over LRA's refusal to free women and children

KAMPALA, 9 May 2007 (IRIN) - The Ugandan government on Tuesday said the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) continued to hold thousands of abducted children and women, despite repeated pleas for their release from both the state and international organisations.

"We keep reminding the LRA about the request over the issue and on numerous occasions we tell them face-to-face to release the children and women they hold hostage. The answer we get is that the women and girls are their wives and children," Okello Oryem, junior foreign minister and deputy head of the government delegation to peace talks with the LRA in Southern Sudan, told reporters in Kampala.

The LRA has been widely accused of killing and maiming civilians and abducting thousands of children and using them to fight or become servants and wives of adult soldiers. The two-decades-long conflict in northern Uganda also resulted in the displacement of nearly two million people, who were required by the government to move into crowded camps where authorities believed they would have better protection from marauding gangs of LRA fighters.

"It is still an offence for the LRA to continue holding these children and women against their wish. During the peace talks, we keep reminding the LRA to release the children and women because that is our duty," said Oryem.

Peace talks to end the war began in July 2006 and a landmark truce was signed in August, raising hopes that the brutal conflict was nearing an end. The peace talks, under the mediation of the government of Southern Sudan, have, however, been slowed down by numerous disagreements and mistrust between the two parties.

On 2 May, both sides signed a preliminary agreement to address the root causes of the conflict, including the need for broad-based government, affirmative action for marginalised groups and equitable land distribution. They also recognised the right of internally displaced people to return and be resettled, and the need to make more resources available for recovery programmes in conflict-affected areas of northern and northeastern Uganda.

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, estimates that up to 3,000 children and women are being held hostage by the LRA in their hide-outs in the bush in Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The UNICEF spokesman in Kampala, Hyun Chulho, said the agency had put in place contingency measures to receive the children and women if the LRA decided to free them.

"We have plans in place to provide the immediate needs of the returnees like family tracing, health services and psycho-social services in the short term, but in the long term [will] involve the communities in the follow-up when the returnees are re-united with their families," he said.

The peace talks, under way in the Southern Sudan capital of Juba, were adjourned last week until 11 May, after the partial agreement was signed.

Five of the LRA's senior commanders, including the group's leader, Joseph Kony, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes.