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Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
Uganda rebels release hostages
Ugandan forces in southern Sudan
The Ugandan army has been trying to wipe out the LRA
Rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda have released a group of abducted women and children into the care of local religious leaders.

It is a good sign

Bishop John Baptiste Odama
The Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative said 18 women and 13 children were handed over by the LRA near Pajule, Pader District about 300 km north of the capital, Kampala.

The release follows a high profile abduction by the LRA of the brother of the former head of state of Uganda, General Tito Okello.

The LRA, who took up arms 15 years ago to overthrow President Yoweri Museveni, has intensified its attacks since late May, following an operation by Ugandan troops to flush them out of neighbouring Sudan.

The religious group said the women and children - some of whom had fought with the rebels - were in a state of exhaustion.

"They are not in a very good condition. They are really destitute. After having walked all this distance from Sudan up here and having been always on the move they are really worn out," Lam Cosmas, the group's spokesman, said.

'Goodwill gesture'

The rebels may have handed over the hostages because they were hindering their progress through the region, he said

Ugandan children
Thousands of children have been kidnapped by the LRA

However, one of the bishops who was recently given the go-ahead by President Museveni to enter a dialogue with the LRA has described the release as a goodwill gesture.

"It is a good sign. What I know is that the rebels are sending these women and children to see what happens to them, whether they are mistreated or not," Roman Catholic Bishop John Baptiste Odama told the Associated Press news agency.

"This is sort of a testing ground, but it is a good sign."

Minister's uncle

But pessimists point to the high-profile abduction as a sign that nothing has really changed.

Erisanweri Opira was abducted by the LRA rebels at his home in the Kitgum District along with a group of teenagers on Tuesday morning.

Ugandan soldier
The Ugandan army is fighting back against LRA attacks

Mr Opira, who is in his 70s, is the brother of the late former head of state, General Tito Okello.

General Okello was head of state for six months until he was overthrown by President Yoweri Museveni in 1986.

The spokesman for the Ugandan army's 4th division, Paddy Ankunda, said that soldiers are doing everything possible and are working around the clock to rescue him.

Mr Opira is also the uncle of Henry Oryem Okello, the current Minister of State for Education and Sport.

Henry Okello is in Manchester, England, for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.

Speaking by phone from there he told the Ugandan media: "It is my prayer that they release him."

The rebels have abducted hundreds of people in recent weeks during attacks across northern districts of Uganda. The majority are released once they have been used to carry loot for the rebels.

But dozens of abductees - usually those under the age of 30 - are unaccounted for and are still in the hands of the rebels.

Lam Cosmas on BBC Network Africa
"They are really destitute"
Henry Okello, on BBC Focus on Africa:
"He was abducted to relay the message of the LRA"

Key stories

See also:

15 Jul 02 | Africa
10 Jul 02 | Africa
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