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Last Updated: Friday, 22 October, 2004, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Uganda's invisible war
By Will Ross
BBC News, Kampala

The humanitarian situation in northern Uganda is desperate.

More than one and a half million people displaced by an 18-year war live in squalid camps where they are largely reliant on food aid.

A Ugandan soldier in the Barlonyo camp north of Lira in northern Uganda after a massacre believed to have been committed by the LRA (file picture)
Uganda says it is winning the war against the LRA rebels
Healthcare provision in the camps is poor and standards of education low.

The United Nations' emergency relief co-ordinator, Jan Egeland, has now called for more international attention to be focused on northern Uganda.

The Ugandan military says it is winning the war against the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group which has abducted over 20,000 children.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has described the rebels as a "crushed force".

Claims that the rebels are on the verge of imminent defeat have been made in the past, but the LRA has continued to wreak havoc on the lives of civilians living in northern Uganda.

Rebel defeat pledge

The LRA has been severely reduced in recent months.

From an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 fighters in 2002, the army now claims there are less than 200 armed fighters remaining. This claim is impossible to verify.

President Yoweri Museveni
President Museveni says the UN has barely helped against the rebels
As to why the LRA had not been defeated before, President Museveni on Thursday blamed the donor community for insisting on restrictions on defence spending.

But he says more has now been spent on defence and he insists that the rebels can be defeated militarily.

For years, the LRA was backed by Sudan while Uganda offered support to the main rebel group in southern Sudan, the SPLA.

But this support has officially ended, and the Sudanese military has been allowing the Ugandan army to pursue LRA rebels inside southern Sudan.

The Ugandan military says the LRA faces defeat without bases in Sudan.

However, military analysts suggest that until Sudan's north-south civil war is brought to a conclusion, the Sudanese government may be reluctant to cut all ties with the LRA.

Civilian fears

Despite the Ugandan government's optimism, attacks on innocent civilians have not ended. Over 30 civilians were reportedly killed during rebel attacks in September alone.

And each night tens of thousands of children walk long distances into the urban centres to sleep the night - to avoid abduction by the LRA.

Most people living in northern Uganda call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict - partly because the military option has failed before.

But they also want their abducted sons and daughters back home alive whatever crimes they have been forced to commit.

The Ugandan military deploys helicopter gunships to attack the rebel positions.

The UN has expressed concern that unarmed children in the hands of the LRA are also killed during such attacks.

Mr Egeland has called for more pressure to be brought on both sides to talk peace. He has said that the military option will not end the war.

Attempts to hold peace talks have been made before - but with so little trust between the two sides they have broken down.

Determined to fight?

Observers of the conflict say the government could have put far more effort into ending the war peacefully.

President Museveni recently criticised Jan Egeland for his comments on the war in northern Uganda.

The government has been reacting angrily to comparisons between northern Uganda and Darfur in western Sudan.

Yet one humanitarian agency working in the camps in northern Uganda reports that in July, there were higher mortality rates in the camps in Uganda than in Darfur.

The Ugandan president says he called for assistance from the UN to help end the conflict during the early 1990s, but claims no assistance was given.

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