By Opheera McDoom
KHARTOUM, July 9 (Reuters) - Former rebel chief John Garang took his place in the Sudanese leadership on Saturday, swearing the oath of office as first vice president in a peace government after more than 20 years fighting from the swamps of the south.
At a ceremony in the presidential palace, six months after a peace agreement between north and south, Garang became deputy to his old enemy President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who signed a new interim constitution and took his own oath of office.
The long and bitter war between the Khartoum government and Garang's rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) ended in January when they signed an agreement which includes a new coalition government and arrangements to share wealth and power.
The power sharing started on Saturday after Garang and Bashir took their oaths under the eyes of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and six African heads of state, including Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Mwai Kibaki of Kenya.
Bashir spoke in Arabic, the language of the Arabised north, and Garang in English, the language preferred by many educated southerners, reflecting the diversity of Sudan, which has dozens of languages and ethnicities. Muslim and Christian clerics introduced the ceremony.
"My presence here today in Khartoum is a true signal that the war is over," Garang said. He expressed condolences for several people who were crushed and killed in the crowd of more than one million who gathered in the main Green Square to greet him on his arrival he day before.
Annan, Garang and the former first vice president who negotiated the deal with the SPLM, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, were pulled out of their seats by dancing Sudanese children and cavorted with them around the tent full of leaders and dignitaries, sweating in the heat.
But despite the celebrations in Khartoum, conflict continues in the west and east of Africa's largest country, where non-Arab ethnic groups have taken up arms to press demands for an end to discrimination by Khartoum.
The leader of one rebel group in the western region of Darfur said Garang must use his new position to struggle for the "new Sudan" which the SPLM said it was fighting for.
"I appeal to him to act firmly to solve the problem of Darfur and eastern Sudan and all of marginalised Sudan," added Abdel Wahid Mohamed Nour of the Sudan Liberation Movement.
OIL AND ETHNICITY
Garang told the swearing-in ceremony: "As a team, the presidency and the government of national unity, we shall exert all efforts to resolve the conflicts in Darfur and the east."
Kofi Annan said: "For the first time in many years, a lasting peace for all the people of Sudan is now within reach. To secure that peace, no effort must be spared."
Southern Sudan has been at war for all but 11 years since independence from Britain in 1956. Garang's rebellion began in 1983 and broadly pitted the Islamist government in Khartoum against the Christian and animist south, complicated by issues of oil, ethnicity and ideology.
The conflict claimed 2 million lives, mostly from famine and disease, and left the south with little infrastructure.
"This sets the first, very important step in creating a new government of national unity ... that needs to include all marginalised people and ensure that peace becomes comprehensive," said Norwegian Minister for International Development Hilde Johnson.
The peace deal gives Bashir's party 52 percent of government and parliament and the SPLM 28 percent, with northern and southern opposition groups taking the remaining 20 percent. The south can vote on secession in a referendum within six years.
It also shares oil wealth roughly equally between the north and the south, where the main oil fields lie.
But the southern peace deal does not cover the separate conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, which has raged for more than two years. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 2 million have fled their homes.
A smaller revolt has recently expanded in the east of Sudan, Africa's largest country.
Annan told Garang and Bashir that peace in the south depended on peace in the other regions.
"The peace process between north and south must be made irreversible -- which it will not be unless it takes root in the east and in the west as well," he said. "As an immediate priority, therefore, the government ... must work to resolve the conflicts in Darfur and in eastern Sudan."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet