KHARTOUM, Sudan, Aug 1, 2005 (AP) — Sudanese Vice President John Garang, a former rebel leader who is a key figure in the country’s fledgling peace deal, died when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed into a southern Sudan mountain range in bad weather, Sudan’s government said Monday.
- John Garang
Garang’s death would be a heavy blow to the January peace deal that ended a 21-year civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south in which some 2 million people died.
Thirteen others aboard the helicopter were also killed, an official statement said. The crash site was found near the Uganda-Sudan border, a Ugandan official said.
Ugandan officials said Garang and the others were flying in one of President Yoweri Museveni’s personal Russian-built Mi-72 helicopters. Ugandan and Sudanese forces had been searching for Garang’s aircraft since Sunday.
"It has now been confirmed that the plane crashed after it hit a mountain range in southern Sudan because of poor visibility and this resulted in the death of Dr. John Garang DeMabior, six of his colleagues and seven other crew members of the Ugandan presidential plane," according to a statement released by the office of Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir.
Violence broke out in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, after Garang’s death was confirmed, with groups of men setting fire to at least 10 private and government cars. Anti-riot police were deployed to several areas of Khartoum where crowds of southern Sudanese were pelting passers-by with stones and smashing car windows.
The violence and widespread grief surrounding Garang’s death forced most in the capital to lock themselves inside their homes while shop owners shuttered their stores.
"Murderers! Murderers!" yelled some southern Sudanese protesters who alleged the Sudanese government, which had battled Garang’s rebel force for two decades before this year’s peace deals, may have been behind the crash.
"We lost Garang at a time when we needed him the most, but we think that we have made great strides toward peace and we believe that that peace process should continue," said Garang aide Nihal Deng during an emergency Cabinet meeting.
An adviser to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, who gave his name only as David, said the remains of Garang and others had arrived at the group’s headquarters in New Site, southern Sudan.
Garang led the SPLM during a two decade civil war against the army of the Islamic-oriented government, but the movmenet was dissolved last month following the peace deal that ushered in a new constitution and led to Garang becoming Sudan’s second-most powerful man.
"The crash was violent and the wreckage was charred but the remains are identifiable," the SPLA adviser told The Associated Press by telephone. "The SPLM leadership is currently assembling in this location to confer and discuss the next step they will take in regards to having a proper burial."
The 60-year-old former rebel leader, who was sworn in as vice president just three weeks ago, left on a flight from Uganda for southern Sudan at 5:30 p.m. Ugandan time Saturday afternoon, Sudanese and Ugandan officials said. It was not clear when the last contact with his craft took place.
Garang’s aircraft had attempted to land in the New Kush region of southern Sudan but aborted the landing because of bad weather and headed back south, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said early Monday. Weather reports showed rain in the area.
Garang, who earned a doctorate from Iowa State University, is seen as the sole figure with the weight to give southern Sudanese a role in the Khartoum government, which they deeply mistrust. He also was a strong voice against outright secession by the south, calling instead for autonomy and power-sharing.
Sudanese have celebrated the power-sharing agreement — and a new constitution signed afterward — as opening a new chapter of peace and as a chance to resolve other bloody conflicts in Sudan, including the humanitarian crisis in the western region of Darfur. Garang was also seen as a great hope for peace in Darfur.
"The (Sudanese) president has appealed to the people to be calm, expressing that although the loss is great but the peace process will continue because peace has now become the property of the Sudanese people and peace-loving people around the world," the Sudanese statement said.
Garang was sworn in as vice president on July 9 — second only to his longtime enemy, President Omar el-Bashir. He and el-Bashir were to work on setting up a power-sharing government and on elevating Garang’s rebel troops to an equal status with the Sudanese military.
El-Bashir said in a televised speech that the helicopter slammed into a mountain due to bad weather conditions before communications were lost.
"Losing the brother, the doctor, is a huge loss," el-Bashir said in a speech broadcast on Sudanese and African television stations. "He is a true peace partner and he has played a big role."
There is no other leader of Garang’s stature in the former rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which he founded and dominated for 21 years. His arrival in Khartoum on July 8 to take the vice president’s post brought millions of southerners and northerners to the streets in celebration.
"We reaffirm the peace process will continue until we reach the objectives set and his (Garang’s) departure will reinforce and give us more strength," the Sudanese statement said.
Salva Kiir, the vice president of south Sudan who was also Garang’s deputy, said from his office in Nairobi, Kenya, that he ordered the former rebel movement’s leadership council to hold an emergency meeting. He said the group will continue with Garang’s policies and remain committed to the peace agreement.
The flight’s disappearance brought up the specter of the 1994 downing of the airplane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been trying to implement a power-sharing deal between his fellow Hutus and the rival Tutsis. His death opened the doors to the Rwandan genocide in which more than 500,000 people were killed.
That genocide took place after months of preparation by Hutu militants — something that has not taken place in Sudan amid the good feelings over the peace deal.
Garang was returning home from a private visit to Uganda, flying from the capital Kampala to southern Sudan, said Ugandan army spokesman 2nd Capt. Dennis Musitwa.
A Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, operates in the area and has shot down Ugandan military helicopters in the past.
El-Bashir clearly saw Garang as an important partner in sealing the peace, ensuring the south does not secede, and in repairing Sudan’s international reputation. With a speed stunning to many in Sudan, the Sudanese state media went from describing Garang in the darkest terms to respectively calling him "Dr. Garang" after the peace deal was struck.
Mohamed Osman reported on this story from Khartoum, and Tanalee Smith reported from Kassala, Sudan. Henry Wasswa contributed from Kampala, Uganda.