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How to punish Uganda rebels

6 November 07 17:29 GMT

By Sarah Grainger
BBC News, northern Uganda

Under the shade of the trees at St Monica's Tailoring School for Girls in Gulu, representatives of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels began public consultations on whether four of their top commanders should face an international war crimes trial.

There was an invited audience of cultural leaders, local politicians and other prominent community members.

The leader of the LRA delegation, Martin Ojul, told them the group had come to ask for people's opinions on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and whether an alternative justice mechanism could be found.

Four of the LRA's top commanders, including its leader Joseph Kony, have been charged with war crimes, including rape and the use of child soldiers in combat.

The arrest warrants were issued at the request of the Ugandan government.

But at a meeting with the rebel delegation on Saturday, President Yoweri Museveni said he would not be asking for the warrants to be removed until a final peace deal had been signed.

The rebels have consistently expressed the wish to face justice within Uganda.

Justice demands

The LRA representatives plan to travel to camps across northern Uganda in the coming days and weeks where people have sheltered from the fighting for years.

There they will ask victims of the conflict what they believe should happen.

In Opit camp, 30km outside Gulu, opinions are mixed.

Helen Opolot is a 40-year-old mother of six, whose 14-year-old daughter was abducted by the LRA in 2002.

Although Ms Opolot says she wants peace more than anything, she also thinks Joseph Kony and others may have a case to answer in court.

"If they've done wrong, they should face justice," she told me.

Fear of conflict

Many in the camps still have no access to their land, and are unable to grow food.

Poverty, or rather avoiding it, is their main priority.

That is the case for Walter, a 30-year-old former abductee, with two wives and five children to feed.

"The government should not pursue these people into court. They should return to Uganda willingly and the government should just be open to them," he said.

Others still remain fearful that the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government is not over.

Patrick Obong, 28, tells me that "the ICC should have arrested those people months ago".

He worries that while Mr Kony and the other LRA leaders fear capture, they may decide to start attacking civilians in northern Uganda again.

The Ugandan government has been carrying out its own consultations on the ICC arrest warrants.

Both sides will take their findings back to the peace talks in southern Sudan in December, where they hope to come to an agreement on the issue.

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