GULU, Uganda, Nov 7 (Reuters) A Ugandan rebel official denied today that Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Josesh Kony had killed his deputy, rejecting local media reports that the guerrillas' second-in-command had been executed.
Both men are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes charges based on their 20-year insurgency and have stayed hidden in remote northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, fearing arrest if they attend peace talks.
Vincent Otti, the LRA's deputy chief, used to talk to mediators and reporters regularly by satellite phone from undisclosed locations. But he has fallen silent in recent weeks, and calls to his various numbers have gone unanswered.
That has prompted intense speculation by Ugandan newspapers that Kony had killed him during a row over money and control.
The independent Daily Monitor said Kony had replaced Otti as his number two with Okot Odhiambo, one of two other LRA leaders wanted for offences by ICC prosecutors in The Hague.
A Ugandan military source told the Monitor that Otti had been executed along with his two wives, while the state-owned New Vision quoted a Ugandan intelligence report that it said gave details of his dispute with Kony.
Martin Ojul, a Ugandan exile who is the top representative of the LRA leaders at the peace talks in South Sudan, said the elderly Otti -- who had become the voice of the group since its previous spokesman surrendered in 2005 -- is alive but ill.
''Otti wasn't executed. He's unwell but he's recovering and soon you'll see him on air,'' Ojul told Reuters during a visit by the LRA negotiators to Gulu town in northern Uganda.
''There's no split between Otti and Kony. They are united.'' Before joining the rebellion in the north in the mid-1980s, Otti ran a small shop near the university in the capital Kampala, and he was later seen as the brains behind the LRA -- in contrast to the volatile, self-proclaimed prophet Kony.
Rumours of his death blazed as LRA delegates visited one of northern Uganda's refugee camps for the first time since talks began last year to seek local support for a motion to prevent Kony, Otti and other indictees going to the court.
The LRA is hoping to persuade the court to back off if justice can be delivered in Uganda but they need support from Uganda's war victims for an alternative trial based on traditional reconciliation rituals.
''Do you forgive the LRA for what it did?'' Ojul asked a crowd of refugees, many of them women in dust-covered clothes, school children and youngsters surrounded by mud huts.
''Yes, yes,'' the crowd replied before clapping quietly and later joining the delegates in a traditional dance, where camp residents thumped cow-skin drums and scratched metal brushes across coconut half-shells.
Otti was a key player in the decision by the cult-like group, notorious for mutilating victims and kidnapping children, to talk peace.
Before the peace negotiations, two decades of conflict in northern Uganda had killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted 2 million more and destabilised parts of Sudan and Congo.
Kony himself, who once said he wanted to rule Uganda according to the Biblical Ten Commandments, has maintained his usual low profile. He is never contactable for comment.
REUTERS NC RK2308