Sudanese government confirms death of Garang

Khartoum/Cairo (dpa) - The Sudanese government confirmed Monday the death of Vice President and former rebel leader John Garang in a helicopter crash, and called his loss "huge and painful''.

In an official statement monitored in Cairo, Khartoum said that the Sudanese presidency had received confirmation that the helicopter had crashed in the Amagong mountain range of southern Sudan.

The statement cited poor visibility conditions in the crash, "resulting in the death of Dr. John Garang, six of his companions and seven crew members''.

It said the Sudanese presidency will receive mourners in the presidential palace starting at noon.

"The loss was huge and painful,'' it said. Earlier, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) had said that Garang, 60, was flying Saturday back to southern Sudan from Uganda, where he had met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, when air traffic controllers in Khartoum lost contact with the aircraft.

The SPLA officials said bad weather caused the helicopter to go down with Garang, his bodyguards and the Ugandan crew on board.

A former leader of rebels in southern Sudan, Garang fought the Khartoum government for 21 years until signing a peace agreement in January. Under the terms of the peace deal, he was sworn in three weeks ago as Sudan's first vice president and president of the south.

The government in Khartoum first made statements Sunday that Garang's aircraft had returned safely. On Sudanese state television, a government spokesman later backtracked and said that there was no immediate information about the helicopter's whereabouts.

Garang, who earned a doctorate in agricultural economics and underwent military training in the United States, had been hailed as a peacemaker by many but also had his share of critics in southern Sudan, who objected to his supreme authority and his ruthlessness as head of the SPLA.

However, the peace agreement Garang signed ended a civil war that killed at least 1.5 million people and pitted the primarily Moslem north against the Christian and animist south.

Uganda said Garang had met Friday with Museveni and Saturday with European Union representatives and the U.S. ambassador to Uganda before departing on a presidential helicopter for his base at New Site in southern Sudan.

The helicopter tried to land in New Cush in southern Sudan but aborted the landing because of bad weather, the Ugandan statement added. It was last heard from over Pirre near the Kenyan border before it went off radar, it said.

Before his death in the crash, Garang left his mark on the Sudanese government. Under the peace deal he helped write over two years of difficult negotiations, the ruling party controls 52 per cent of the government and parliament while Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Movement won 28 per cent and other opposition parties from the north and south hold 20 per cent.

Oil-rich southern Sudan will enjoy some autonomy for six years as well as half the country's petroleum income and will then vote whether to remain part of Sudan or become secede.

In the meantime, Garang was allowed to have his own army and government in the south.

While the peace pact ended the north-south civil war, a separate conflict still rages in the western region of Darfur. dpa gp ff uk hw ls ds


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