KAMPALA, 2 Aug 2005 (IRIN) - The death of Sudanese First Vice President John Garang in a helicopter crash on Saturday could have an adverse effect on efforts to bring peace to war-torn northern Uganda, commentators said.
Northern Uganda, which borders southern Sudan, has been ravaged by two decades of a war that pits the Ugandan government against the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal group accused of committing widespread atrocities against civilians in the north and east of the country.
"I understand from contacts that the LRA is rejoicing because a key enemy has been removed," John Prendergast, a special advisor to the global think-tank, the International Crisis Group, said on Monday.
"This could have a serious negative impact for the northern Uganda situation," he told IRIN from Kampala.
The LRA has launched many of its attacks from rear bases in government-controlled areas of southern Sudan. Its leader, the elusive Joseph Kony, is widely believed to inhabit the Imatong mountain range in southern Sudan.
At one point, Kampala accused Khartoum of arming the LRA in retaliation for Uganda's alleged support of the SPLM/A.
In an interview with Uganda's New Vision newspaper the day before his death, Garang warned Kony to leave southern Sudan, and promised to deal with all destabilising forces in southern Sudan.
"Kony won't be hiding there for long," he said. "It is not only Kony, but also all the militias who have been operating in the area. We need to provide peace, security and stability."
Garang died when a Ugandan military helicopter flying him to southern Sudan after a meeting with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, crashed near the Uganda-Sudan border.
The two leaders are reported to have discussed how Garang's administration in southern Sudan could help deal with the LRA insurgency.
The chairman of the former rebel southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), Garang had been sworn into office three weeks ago, after ending a 21-year war against the Khartoum government in January.
An estimated 1.6 million people in Uganda's north and east have been forced from their homes by the Ugandan conflict. The rebels have, since the start of the conflict, abducted more than 20,000 children to fight alongside the rebels and serve as porters or sex slaves.
"He was committed to joining hands with us to end terrorism in northern Uganda. That is lost now," Lt Col Shaban Bantariza, Ugandan army spokesman, said. "I only hope that the SPLA will pick up the pieces and proceed from where Garang left off."
Reagan Okumu, a Member of Parliament from the northern district of Gulu, said the people of northern Uganda had great faith in Garang's ability to restore peace in the region.
"It [Garang's death] is definitely a blow to the peace process in northern Uganda. Garang had a personal attachment with the people in northern Uganda and it was hoped that if he took firm control over southern Sudan, this LRA menace would cease," Okumu told IRIN.
Museveni described Garang's death as a "tragic loss", but said it should not be allowed to hinder the Sudanese people's struggle for justice and dignity.
"The Uganda government supports the interim process in the Sudan," he said.
The president declared three days of mourning in Uganda in Garang's honour.
Museveni also announced the formation of a panel of three experts to probe the accident that claimed Garang's life. "We have also approached a certain foreign government to rule out any form of sabotage or terrorism," he added.
The MI-72 helicopter presidential helicopter came down in bad weather, with some reports suggesting it had run out of fuel. All of 14 people on board were killed.
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