updated 11/12/2006 12:26:56 AM ET 2006-11-12T05:26:56

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland arrived Saturday in southern Sudan in an attempt to gain release of women and children held by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group known for cutting the tongues and lips off innocent civilians.

Egeland said he is willing to meet the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army high command and its shadowy leader, Joseph Kony, to discuss the release of the captives and other humanitarian issues related to a nearly 20-year conflict between the rebels and the Ugandan government.

The rebels have indicated they would like to talk with Egeland, but it was unclear if a meeting would take place.

Egeland said he would not raise the issue of arrest warrants issued last year by the International Criminal Court for Kony and four other top LRA commanders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The rebels have said the warrants could threaten a fragile cease-fire signed between the LRA and the government in August.

Peace talks between the two sides have faltered in recent weeks over alleged violations of the cease-fire, which have led to temporary walkouts by mediators.

But Egeland praised the talks, telling journalists that tens of thousands of displaced people had begun returning home because of a halt in fighting and that the cease-fire appeared to be holding.

Government grateful for visit
The Ugandan government welcomed Egeland’s visit, his second since the peace deal was signed.

“If he can secure the release of women and children through his meeting then that would be a very positive boost for the Juba talks,” said Ruhakana Rugunda, head of the government negotiating team and Uganda’s minister of internal affairs.

The LRA has led a brutal insurgency against Museveni’s government since the mid-1980s, leaving thousands dead and forcing 1.7 million people to flee their homes, according to aid groups. The group is accused of kidnapping thousands of children and forcing them to be soldiers and sex slaves, the U.N. says.

After his two-day visit to Juba, Egeland will fly on to the troubled Darfur region in Sudan’s west. The trip will be his last to Africa as the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

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