UN official meets Ugandan rebel leader in jungle outpost

Top UN humanitarian official Jan Egeland met shadowy Lord's Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony Sunday in a sign that a breakthrough on peace talks may be close.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Africa's most feared rebel leader walked out of the jungle in southern Sudan Sunday and into talks with senior United Nations officials.

Joseph Kony, the head of a shadowy Ugandan rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has appeared in public only a few times and has so far refused to join peace talks aimed at ending two decades of fighting for fear of being arrested on war crimes charges.

But Sunday, in a sign that a breakthrough may be close, he met with top UN humanitarian official Jan Egeland to discuss the welfare of women and children within his notorious LRA.

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After keeping Mr. Egeland waiting for two hours in a small clearing deep in tropical rainforest close to the Democratic Republic of Congo-Sudan border, Mr. Kony strolled out of the jungle with about 40 fighters.

Kony spent 10 minutes with Egeland in a simple tent, constructed from plastic sheeting, surrounded by dreadlocked militiamen armed with AK-47 and grenade launchers.

The meeting came after a frantic week of diplomacy following a public request from the LRA that Kony be allowed to meet Egeland during a visit to Sudan.

Afterwards, Kony declared the meeting a success.

"We talked about peace talks that are taking place in Juba," he said, referring to the southern Sudanese capital.

Egeland had been seeking to secure the release of women and children abducted by the LRA during their 20-year conflict with the Ugandan government, but Kony emerged from the meeting saying: "We don't have any children in our movement, there are only combatants."

Still, UN officials said it was vitally important to establish dialogue with a rebel group that is driven by suspicion and paranoia.

The cult-like LRA has waged one of Africa's most brutal and bizarre civil wars.

Tens of thousands of people have died and 1.5 million people forced to live in the squalor of aid camps since Kony took up arms in Uganda against a government accused of neglecting the interests of northerners.

The LRA has abducted thousands of children to fight in its ranks, and tortured opponents by cutting off their lips, arms, or legs. Women have been kept as sex slaves.

Kony, and four senior commanders, have been charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes including killing civilians, rape, and abducting children.

Peace talks have stalled repeatedly on this issue as rebel negotiators demand an amnesty to allow Kony to leave hiding.

After Sunday's meeting Egeland said: "For me, it was a successful meeting because I have now brought to the highest levels of the LRA the need to do more to protect the civilian population and to return the people they have abducted."

"They have not promised much more than to come back [for more talks] before the end of the month."

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