A ceasefire aimed at ending one of the world's most brutal wars went into effect yesterday as Uganda's government said it was ending hostilities against a shadowy rebel movement that has terrorized the public for nearly two decades.
The militant Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), notorious for cutting off the tongues and lips of innocent civilians, enslaving tens of thousands of children and driving nearly 2 million people from their homes, agreed to end the conflict over the weekend.
"The cessation of hostilities is in effect now and involves the [Ugandan army] halting their search and destroy operations," Ugandan Army spokesman Major Felix Kulaije said yesterday. "From today [yesterday], soldiers can only shoot in their own defense."
The rebels signed a truce with the government on Saturday that gives rebel fighters three weeks to gather at two villages in largely uninhabited areas across the border in southern Sudan, where they will be protected and monitored.
The truce was to take effect yesterday morning.
"We don't expect to see a mass movement tomorrow," said Chris Magezi, army spokesman for northern Uganda, on Monday.
"The LRA do not have the confidence to move openly, so they will probably go secretively in groups on foot," he said.
If the deal holds, it will be a major breakthrough in pacifying the African region that joins northern Uganda, eastern Congo and southern Sudan.
Rebels from all three nations operated across borders with impunity for decades until a peace accord halted Congo's civil war in 2003 and southern Sudanese rebels joined Sudan's government last year.
Peace would open northern Uganda to greater oil and mineral exploration as well as allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to their farms.
The Lord's Resistance Army was formed from the remnants of a northern Uganda rebellion that began in 1986 after President Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, overthrew a brutal military junta.
Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, mixed northern politics with religious mysticism, declaring himself a Christian prophet fighting to rule this country of 26 million people by the Ten Commandments.
UN officials estimate Kony's guerrillas kidnapped some 20,000 children over the past 19 years, turning the boys into soldiers and the girls into sex slaves for rebel commanders.
Rebel attacks and atrocities also drove 1.7 million to flee their homes.
The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Kony and four other rebel leaders, but the Ugandan government has promised not turn them over in return for an end to the insurgency, which has killed thousands of civilians. An exact death toll is not known.
Human rights groups have condemned Museveni's amnesty offer, but the president argues peace is more important than an international trial.
Kony, who has been seen in public only a handful of times during the insurgency, says he is innocent of the war crimes and crimes against humanity charges filed by the International Criminal Court.
Under terms of the truce, Kony and three other top commanders wanted by the international court are to assemble along with their fighters, the group's top negotiator said on Sunday.
The truce does not include details on disarming the rebels or integrating them into Ugandan society. Those terms will be part of a final accord to be negotiated at talks in Juba, Sudan, with leaders of Sudan's southern region serving as mediators.