The meeting, held late on Tuesday along the Uganda-Sudan border, was also the first time journalists had met top leaders of the elusive group, who have until now made announcements by phone calls to radio programmes.

Seven rebel commanders, led by spokesman Brigadier Sam Kolo, met 32 members of parliament and senior clergymen, as well as chief peace negotiator Betty Bigombe.

"If we were really killers ... we could kill you all now for nothing but that's not our aim. We are committed to peace 100%," Kolo told the negotiators, who travelled to the remote area in a United Nations convoy.

The LRA, whose only stated aim is to rule Uganda by the biblical Ten Commandments, has rampaged through the north of the country for 18 years, attacking civilians, kidnapping children and forcing 1.6 million people to flee to refugee camps.
 
It routinely targets civilians, slicing off the lips and ears of its victims and kidnapping thousands of children who it forces to work as porters, fighters and sex slaves.

Army campaign

In November, Kolo called a radio station with an offer of peace and the government responded cautiously. It offered a ceasefire only after Kolo met briefly with Bigombe to verify his radio message was authentic.

LRA leader Joseph Kony was not
present at the meeting

The rebel initiative followed a months-long Ugandan army campaign which military commanders said weakened the rebels and forced them to hide in neighbouring southern Sudan.
 
The LRA leader, dreadlocked self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, did not attend the meeting. Asked why, Kolo replied: "Why is not (Ugandan President Yoweri) Museveni here?"

The rebels have said they are worried the Ugandan government might use the talks as a chance to attack or imprison them.

"I think the message was very clear, and I think they have walked away quite assured that they will not be attacked once they come out," said Bigombe, who now works with the World Bank.

Bigombe was a government minister back in 1993 when she held talks with Kony, which fell apart after Museveni accused the LRA of using them to plan new attacks.

Human rights crimes 

Each representative made statements, some containing promises, others making ideological points.

"This is a miracle from God," Archbishop John Baptist Odama told the rebels. "Let's seize the chance - come out and tell us what you really want."

A top LRA religious leader, Col. Bongomin Ginaro, said the LRA's cause was blessed.

"Like someone was paid to kill Jesus, some people have been paid to kill Kony. LRA is an army of God and we are acting on behalf of God," Ginaro said.

The LRA is under investigation for human rights crimes by the International Criminal Court, but Museveni has said he would intervene on behalf of the rebels if they renounced violence.