Uganda: Mediator wary of prospects for northern dialogue, says UNICEF

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
GULU, 25 July (IRIN) - Lack of communication with rebels fighting the Ugandan government in the north threatens to scuttle efforts to end the 19-year conflict through peace talks, Ann Veneman, Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, said on Saturday.

"Betty [Bigombe, the mediator in the conflict] is very committed to dialogue. She is, however, cautious about it because it is difficult to communicate with the rebel group [the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)]," she told reporters after a two-day visit to the war-affected region.

Speaking at Gulu airport in northern Uganda, Veneman said she had earlier held "a good meeting" with President Yoweri Museveni at a military base in Gulu town, 380 km north of the capital, Kampala.

"The President indicated to me that there is progress," she noted. "The rebels' force is weakening, with attacks on the population, abduction of children, all going down.

"I told him [the President] we must do everything we can to end the war for the sake of the children on whom the war has had a particularly devastating impact," she added.

The notoriously brutal LRA has fought Museveni's government from bases in the Sudan since 1988, with the shadowy group claiming it wants to replace the government with another based on Biblical teachings.

However, the LRA is better known for its abduction of young children to serve as rebel fighters or sex slaves. According to UNICEF and other aid groups, the rebels have abducted around 20,000 children so far.

Another 40,000 children have been forced by the war to become 'night commuters' - a term describing those who stream into towns every evening to sleep because their villages are too dangerous after dark.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands and displaced over 1.4 million people, some of whom Veneman visited on Saturday. Of those displaced, 80 percent are women and children.

"The one thing I have heard from everybody is that the sooner the peace is got, the better," she commented.

On Friday, Veneman met children who had been rescued or had managed to escape from rebel captivity, and noted that they "deserved to be welcomed back in their community".

She also met thousands of 'night commuters'.

"The circumstances that children are facing here are disgraceful and outrageous," Veneman said during a visit to a shelter for displaced people in nearby Kitgum district.

"The underlying problem is that everybody is living in fear," the UNICEF head told reporters. "We are very concerned about the plight of children, especially because this war targets children."

She told local officials in Gulu: "We will work, as UNICEF and the international community, to raise the profile of the situation in Uganda; we need to put pressure on those causing this terrible suffering of children - it is disgraceful; it must stop, and we will tell the world so."

Gulu district council chairman, Walter Ochora, told Veneman: "I am beginning to doubt that this dialogue with the LRA can succeed because the rebels have failed to cooperate. I don't guarantee the children's safety as long as [LRA leader Joseph] Kony is still alive."


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