NEW SITE, Sudan, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Southern Sudanese grieved their former leader John Garang around a simple bed on Tuesday and hoped the peace deal he struck would stick under his successor despite rioting over his death that killed 24 people.
Garang -- who just three weeks ago became Sudan's vice-president as part of a January peace accord hailed as a rare success for the continent -- died when a Ugandan helicopter he was travelling in went down in bad weather at the weekend.
Fellow ex-fighters, supporters and relatives gathered in New Site, a small settlement in the remote bush of southern Sudan, where Garang's body was laid out in a wooden casket with a flag draped over it.
Scented charcoal burned in the modest room where the casket rested. Outside, men in green combat fatigues sat under thorn trees, some holding rifles.
Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) announced five days of mourning starting on Tuesday.
Seeking to confound predictions from some of a messy succession fight, the SPLM also moved swiftly to choose a close Garang ally -- his deputy Salva Kiir -- to succeed him.
The SPLM expects Kiir to take Garang's post as first vice president in the new power-sharing government set up in the January accord that ended two decades of north-south conflict, Africa's longest-running civil war.
"We wanted no vacuum," senior SPLM official Pagan Amun told Reuters in their southern administrative base New Site.
Garang, a skilful battlefield commander and politician, was sworn in as Sudan's first vice president on July 9.
Some southerners, who have long complained of discrimination by the Islamic authorities based in the north, fear their position may be weakened without him.
His death prompted some southerners to rampage through the streets of Khartoum on Monday, setting fire to vehicles and looting shops in some of the worst riots in the capital in years. Police said at least 24 people were killed.
After a 6 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew overnight, Sudanese authorities deployed tanks to sensitive locations in Khartoum to keep the peace on Tuesday morning, witnesses said.
Some burnt-out shops and smashed vehicles bore witness to Monday's violence, they added. And sirens could be heard from ambulances in the early morning, although it was not clear where they were heading.
"GARANG'S VISION STILL ALIVE"
The United Nations, the United States and a host of other international figures and bodies called Garang's death a great loss and urged respect for the peace process he began.
The United States dispatched two top diplomats to encourage a smooth transition in the southern leadership.
"The United States is determined to maintain our commitment to the peace process in Sudan," President George W. Bush said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recalled Garang as a man who was "larger than life" and called on the SPLM to hold together and join the government in Khartoum.
Analysts say Kiir may bring a more collegial style to southern politics which Garang had long dominated.
Members of the SPLM and the government in Khartoum -- bitter enemies during the conflict -- promised to maintain the power-sharing peace agreement Garang helped bring about.
"The SPLM appeals to all the Sudanese people to remain calm under the difficult and trying moment so that the enemies of peace do not exploit the situation," the SPLM said.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he was "confident" the peace accord would hold.
However, some southerners fear Garang's absence could weaken their hand in governing Africa's largest country, divided between an Arabised Muslim north and the south, which is a mix of African ethnicities with Christians, animists and Muslims.
The peace deal included giving southerners the right to vote on secession after a six-year interim period and also shared out Sudan's oil wealth between north and south roughly equally.
Garang's death stunned the region, where Sudan's neighbours helped negotiate an end to the continent's longest civil war. Neighbours Kenya and Uganda declared three days of mourning.
The civil war in south Sudan began in 1983 when the Islamist Khartoum government tried to impose sharia Islamic law. Two million people were killed, mainly by hunger and disease.
Church leaders across Africa were praying for peace.
"He (Garang) fought a good fight for the liberation of south Sudan but death has stopped him from witnessing the full implementation of his desire for a liberated southern Sudan," the All Africa Conference of Churches said. "May God grant the people of Sudan endurance and comforts in this time of grief."
Garang's wife Rebecca added her voice to the pleas for calm.
"This was his day and I accept that God has come to collect him," she told Reuters in New Site. "It is just my husband who has died. His vision is still alive."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet