IGANGA, UGANDA -- Her name means "messenger" in her tribe's language, and the spirits said to speak through her have inspired thousands to march unarmed into battle against well-equipped government troops.

Alice Lakwena, 27, teaches her followers that bullets will turn back if they smear oil on their bodies, and that the stones they carry will explode like grenades when thrown.

The result has been a fearsome slaughter as the rebel priestess marched about 400 miles since mid-year from her northern Gulu district to the lush area around this eastern town.

During the move south, perhaps hundreds of Lakwena's Holy Spirit movement members died in each battle of a running series of engagements with President Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army.

In recent weeks the Army has inflicted decisive defeats on the rebel force, while villagers have hacked or beaten to death Lakwena followers who fall into their hands. From 4,000 or more fighters in July, the group has been reduced to several dozen or fewer -- believed to be deep in the bush and trying to flee north, back to Lakwena's home territory.

The disintegration of the Holy Spirit movement leaves Museveni facing an array of lesser rebellions in the north. A half-dozen groups with no apparent ideology, aside from opposition to Museveni, are estimated to have 10,000 or fewer men under arms, compared with the government's 30,000 or 40,000 troops.

The hostile response by this area's Bantu-stock people to Lakwena's ethnically distinct northerners illuminates the deep divisions and lingering hatreds left by 15 years of brutal government, under Idi Amin and then Milton Obote, whose rules together are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of at least 500,000 people.

At the same time, the ease with which Lakwena, a member of the Acholi tribe, enrolled fellow northerners in her cause shows their suspicion and perceived grievances against Museveni's government and Army, which was a guerrilla force based in the south and west before taking the capital, Kampala, in January 1986.

Captured rebel notebooks made available to a reporter at Waibuga, a bush village 10 miles down dirt roads from this small town, reveal an appeal by Lakwena based on a sense of persecution and discrimination.

The 10 notebooks also contained duty rosters, battle reports and lists of New and Old Testament readings. There were no direct references to Lakwena's supposed powers, although one book contained recipes calling for lizards, toads, bats, monkeys and insects to be mixed in various potions granting invulnerability to different weapons.

This area's villagers remember the troubled times under Obote, who ruled from a rigged 1980 election until he was deposed in a July 1985 coup. Amin's systematic terror, imposed during eight years of rule until his 1979 overthrow by an invading Tanzanian Army, struck all segments of the population.

But Obote, a northern Langi, relied largely on Langi and Acholi troops to subdue the population. In Iganga and the surrounding bush, people recall Obote's reign and equate Lakwena's appearance with the return of his forces.

"When they were in power we never had anything good from them," said Fred Wamb, proprietor of Sam's Bar in Iganga. "In fact, they used to beat us from time to time. We used to be brutalized."

"They are trouble," he said, adding that "the public caught many. Some were killed just with stones."

Iganga district administrator Abby Mukwaya said local officials could not contain villagers' hostility toward Lakwena's forces, especially after the rebels killed several villagers, then massacred 13 in Waibuga on Oct. 29.

"When the people get them, they want to retaliate," said Mukwaya. "They just find them and kill them."

The local hostility proved decisive in recent weeks, according to Museveni and local commanders. Villagers quickly contacted government forces when rebels appeared, allowing the Army to find Lakwena's bases as she moved through the bush. When Lakwena was among her people in the north, the Army was limited largely to sitting and waiting for attacks.

"There was no support. The wanainchi {common people} were . . . hostile to us," said Michael Mafabi, Lakwena's chief adjutant who surrendered earlier this month. "No food, no recruitment or any aid."

Mafabi said "many spirits" speak through the priestess. One is called "the wrong element. When that wrong element commands, when it says someone should be killed, they kill."

Other captured rebels said Lakwena forbids sex and smoking and prohibits her fighters from taking cover during battle.

Despite Lakwena's teachings, her forces used what guns they could obtain. But Mafabi estimated they had at most 700 -- enough for less than one-fourth of the force at its height.

The government put the number of Holy Spirit members killed in battle at 1,490 in October alone, and said it has killed more than 7,000 rebels since the beginning of the year -- a count one western source said was "probably accurate." The government has not announced its own cumulative casualty figures, but reported fewer than a dozen killed and wounded in each battle.

Museveni, in a recent interview at the Magamaga barracks west of here, called Lakwena's the most potent rebel force and expressed confidence his Army would defeat the remaining groups.

"This is simply a question of lawlessness being exploited by corrupt politicians," he said.