Part 1 - Vincent Otti: LRA Won’t Surrender

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(That ICC Also Probe Alleged Govt. Atrocities)

Vincent Otti the Lords’ Resistance Army’s number two man says the LRA wants unconditional peace talks with the Uganda government. Separately, Otti says LRA commanders, including the leader Joseph Kony, don't plan to surrender to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face war crimes charges. The ICC unsealed arrest warrants for LRA commanders last October. The LRA has long been accused of massive human rights violations and atrocities against civilians –including rapes, killings and cutting off of people’s lips, ears and limbs—in northern Uganda, by human rights groups and the Uganda government.

Otti in an interview with The Black Star News asked why the ICC has pursued LRA commanders while sparing President Yoweri Museveni for alleged crimes committed while he was leader of a guerrilla army and then as president when Uganda's army operated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—the ICC should also indict Museveni, Otti says.

“We don’t want to get into a debate with the LRA on the radio and print media,� an ICC spokesperson said, when informed about Otti’s remarks. Earlier, chief ICC prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo, had issued a statement following Kony’s own recent published interviews stating: “I invite Joseph Kony and the other commanders identified in the arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court to come forward to the Court and respond to the charges..The Court will guarantee their safe passage to The Hague, and they will be given every opportunity and facility to present their case before an independent judicial body with the highest guarantees of the due process.�

Separately, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, declined to comment but noted that a “media blitz� was being conducted by the LRA. “I’m not authorized to comment on this—I wouldn’t know what to say,� the spokesperson said when informed of Otti’s comments. Officials at the Uganda embassy in Washington, D.C., could not be reached by presstime this evening.

“The government of Uganda is not interested in talking. The government of Uganda has a plan—a big plan to exterminate the population of Acholi,� and seize the land, Otti said, referring to widespread fear among the populace in Uganda’s Acholi region –which has borne the brunt of the fighting –that the Museveni government intends to keep people in concentration camps and sell off their land to foreign investors.

The Uganda government calls the camps Internally Displaced People's camps (IDPs) and insists they're designed to protect civilians from LRA attacks. A UN agency last year reported that more than 1,000 people die every week due to abuses and unsanitary conditions at the camps.

Otti in the interview declined to reveal the LRA's demands saying he didn't want the Uganda government to gain an upper hand. Yet, he claims, the Uganda government is actually actively working to sabotage the talks. Otti didn’t elaborate but claimed he had information that Uganda wanted to divide the SPLA leadership in Southern Sudan, where the proposed peace talk is to be held, by pitting Rebecca Garang, wife of the late SPLA leader and Sudan Vice President John Garang, against current mediator Dr. Riak Machar. Machar is now Vice President in the Southern Sudan government.

Otti claims opponents of the peace talk have even plotted to assassinate Machar, Kony and himself, in order to sabotage the talks. Machar couldn’t be reached for comment by presstime.

“How will we lay down our arms. They just want to capture us,� Otti said, referring to published accounts in Uganda's New Vision newspaper on June 28, that the government wants the LRA to disarm first. Otti called the offices of The Black Star News from an undisclosed location in East Africa from a satellite phone yesterday; an earlier interview was conducted June 20.

Otti said if the ICC wanted to prosecute leaders of rebel groups, the court should look at President Museveni’s record beginning from 1972 when he first started recruiting fighters to fight Idi Amin, then later in the 1980s when he was leader of the National Resistance Army (NRA) which battled Milton Obote’s government. The ICC should also look into alleged atrocities by Uganda troops in the Congo in the last few years, including massacres, looting of minerals and timber, and kidnapping of Congolese women, Otti said.

Otti denied that his fighters were responsible for the mutilation of civilians in Acholi, claiming that the abuses were committed by Uganda government soldiers dressed as rebel fighters. He claims the LRA has evidence it is willing to provide to the ICC but didn’t elaborate. (An ICC spokesperson wouldn’t comment).

But perhaps it’s the threatening sword of the ICC dangling over both sides that’s now pushing combatants towards the negotiating table. According to a front page report in The Wall Street Journal’s June 8, 2006 issue, in April 2004, President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo referred allegations of war crimes against his country to the ICC. “Mr. Moreno-Ocampo set up a separate team to investigate atrocities there, which will likely involve reviewing Uganda’s alleged support for Congolese militia,� The Wall Street Journal reported, referring to ICC chief prosecutor. “President Museveni of Uganda asked Koffi Annan to block the Congo investigation, according to one person familiar with the matter. Mr. Annan replied that he had no power to interfere with the court, this person said,� added the Journal article. The paper said a Uganda government spokesman Robert Kabushenga, declined to comment on the matter.

The UN Security Council can vote to block an ICC case for a renewable one year period. The ICC, with 100 member countries including Uganda, was created in 2002. The court has 18 judges and the chief prosecutor serves a nine year term. The ICC’s mandate excludes crimes alleged to have occurred before July 1, 2002. Ironically, leaders in Acholi would prefer that the ICC allow the peace talks to proceed, in the interest of ending the 20 year brutal war. The case against the LRA leaders is the ICC's first--LRA is accused of crimes such as kidnappings, mutilations and killings of civilians.

Despite the recent increase in media coverage surrounding possible peace talks, Otti claims the LRA remains wary. “The government is always setting unrealistic demands,� Otti said, referring to the earlier July 31 surrender deadline issued by the Uganda government. Otti claimed the Uganda government had in the past sabotaged at least four attempts to discuss peace.

In 1993-94 the government gave the LRA seven days to surrender. “That is why fighting resumed,� Otti said. Again in 2003, when the LRA wanted to negotiate peace, the area where talks were to be held was attacked by the government, he claimed. Then in 2005 before peace talks could occur, the government demanded that LRA fighters assemble at a designated area. “The intention was to surround us and finish us off,� Otti said.

[Uganda’s New Vision newspaper today reported that the Uganda government was sending Internal affairs minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda to meet with Silva Kiir who is president of South Sudan and VP in the Sudanese national government to consult “over peace talks with the LRA.� The government spokesman, Kabushenga, was quoted saying: “This delegation will talk to Salva Kiir, and any prospects of talking directly to the LRM/A delegation will depend on the results of these consultations.�]

Otti denied the Uganda government’s contention that the army had defeated the LRA. “There is no defeat,� he said. “That is why there is interest in peace talks.� Otti said the LRA has thousands of fighters. “We have enough men.�

Otti said the Ugandan government in the past has staged attacks on civilians and blamed it on the LRA. He recalled the recent attack near Juba in which nine civilians were killed after the first meetings between the LRA leaders and Machar on June 11-June 12th. “It was Museveni,� he said, claiming the Ugandan army was responsible for the killings. “We can prove it. We don’t have a single one of our people there. Not even a single one,� Otti said, adding that LRA fighters were more than 100 miles from the Western bank of the Nile and were near the Central African Republic.

Otti said Machar was a trusted mediator and also confirmed that he had indeed provided the LRA with $20,000 which they used to purchase food in Southern Sudan.

Note To Readers: Part two of the interview with Otti will appear on July 3rd.

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