Central Africa president negotiating rebel leader Kony surrender

BANGUI (AFP) - The Central African Republic's president said Thursday he was in contact with Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, one of the world's most wanted war criminals, to negotiate his surrender.

"It's true, Joseph Kony wants to come out of the bush. We are negotiating with him," Mr Michel Djotodia said during a meeting with political leaders in the capital Bangui.

"He asked for food supplies and the government took care of that," he said.

Mr Djotodia's comments confirmed reports by international envoys on Wednesday that he was in talks with Kony, who has been wanted since 2005 by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The development raised hopes that one of the world's most brutal armed groups was on its last legs but the Central African leader, speaking in the local Sango language, warned caution was in order.

Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army was once a northern Ugandan insurgency fighting President Yoweri Museveni's regime but in recent years, the defeated remnants of the group have operated mostly in neighbouring countries as a roving mercenary and extortionist gang.

LRA men have raped and massacred villagers in the region, evading arrest in one of the most impenetrable regions of Africa straddling the borders of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Envoys from the UN and African Union said on Wednesday there were indications that Kony might be seeking to come out of the bush because he is thought to be seriously ill.

The LRA - described by the International Crisis Group as a "multinational criminal and terror band" - is thought to be a dwindling force of 500 fighters at most.

"There are 7,000 people with him," Mr Djotodia said Thursday, presumably referring to enslaved abducted villagers. He did not provide further information on Kony's whereabouts.

UN envoy Abu Mussa and his AU counterpart Francisco Madeira said that Kony is believed to have asked Mr Djotodia to provide a safe zone for him and his fighters.

They warned the Central African interim president against being tricked by Kony, who has walked out on several peace negotiations in the past, and had advised him not to provide food unless it was part of a surrender deal.

Mr Djotodia, whose country has been sliding into chaos since he seized power in a coup earlier this year, is himself under increasing pressure from the international community. He has failed to rein in his former rebel comrades and the UN has said it might have to send thousands of peacekeepers amid growing concern a possible genocide was in the making.

A 3,000-strong Ugandan-led African force is hunting Kony.

They are backed by about 100 military advisors from the United States, which has offered a US$5 million (S$6.2 million) reward for Kony's capture.

Mr Mussa said the Central African Republic authorities had expected a mass surrender by LRA fighters on November 3, but it did not happen.

The 50-year-old Kony, a former altar boy who followed in the footsteps of messianic former prostitute and rebel leader Alice Lakwena in the late 80s, is wanted by the ICC.

He was charged with 12 counts of crimes against humanity and 21 of war crimes, including murder, rape, forced enlistment of children and sexual enslavement.

The list of crimes has grown longer since and according to a recent UN report, the LRA is responsible for 100,000 deaths over the past quarter century.

It is also estimated to have abducted up to 100,000 children and caused the displacement of 2.5 million people over the same period.

Kony surged to unexpected worldwide prominence in March 2012 on the back of a hugely popular internet video that called for his capture.