Ugandan top rebel okays refugees to return home

KAMPALA, Nov 18, 2006 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- Uganda's rebel leader of the Lord' s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, has assured the internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Acholi and Langi region of their safety to leave refugee camps for home.

Kony, LRA leader wanted by the International Criminal Court ( ICC), sent the message through Radio Mega FM in war-ravaged northern Uganda on Thursday night by making a satellite telephone call from his hideout in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"On the LRA side, we say you are now very free. If you know your old homes, you are free to leave now. There is completely nothing we shall do to you. We just wish you well," he said.

"Civilians that are beginning or yet to begin going back to your villages, whether in Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Lira and part of Soroti and other places, are free to go back their home," he added.

Acholi and Langi region, comprising nearly all districts in the north, are the most ravaged areas by the LRA's two-decade-old insurgency which has left tens of thousands of people dead and over 1.4 million others homeless in northern Uganda.

"I thank the government for seeking my opinion about the return of civilians to their homes. I thank the government very much for the gesture," he told the radio referring a program the government has recently embarked on returning IDPs to their home villages.

The rebels and the government delegates are now negotiating a final peace deal in Juba, southern Sudan, since the talks started on July 14, offering the best chance to end the northern conflict after a dozen of similar attempts failed in the last few years.

The two sides have managed to sign a landmark truce agreement in August followed by a series of confidence building meetings between the rebels and Acholi leaders and government officials including Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Kony also met UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland last week, first of its kind, to discuss the ongoing peace process, which is widely seen as a momentum to the seemingly stalled talks.

The ICC's indictment of Kony and four of his top commanders has been described as a major obstacle for the LRA leadership to directly participate the Juba talks. The rebels have demanded the court based in The Hague to drop the charges of war crimes and the crime against humanity.