Sudan's Fledgling Peace Now in Peril

Rebecca Garang, right, wife of John Garang, grieves after his death in a helicopter crash. She said there was no evidence of foul play. The former Sudanese rebel leader had become a vice president as part of a peace deal.
Rebecca Garang, right, wife of John Garang, grieves after his death in a helicopter crash. She said there was no evidence of foul play. The former Sudanese rebel leader had become a vice president as part of a peace deal. (By Radu Sigheti -- Reuters)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

KIGALI, Rwanda, Aug. 1 -- Rioters rampaged through the capital of Sudan on Monday, smashing cars and shops in violence that officials said left at least 20 people dead, as news spread that John Garang, a prominent rebel leader and the newly installed first vice president of Sudan, had been killed in a helicopter crash Sunday.

World leaders quickly urged Sudanese factions to carry on the peace process in which Garang, 60, played a major role. His triumphal move just over three weeks ago to the capital, Khartoum, marked the end to a 21-year civil war between Sudan's Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south -- a conflict separate from that in the Darfur region in western Sudan, where violence continues. The Khartoum government called for three days of mourning, and Garang's longtime top deputy was named to replace him as head of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

Garang's widow also urged calm, addressing the public by radio, and asked that the peace process continue. In an interview, she said that despite rumors, there was no evidence of foul play in her husband's death.

"We want to keep his legacy alive," Rebecca Garang said by telephone from southern Sudan. "Keeping the peace is how we can honor his memory."

But across Sudan, where people were beginning to lay down their guns, debate a new constitution and draw up plans to build schools and hospitals after years of war and deprivation, many were asking what impact Garang's death would have on the country's fledgling peace process.

Garang died when his helicopter crashed in bad weather just a few miles from his base, New Site village, in southern Sudan. He was returning from an official visit to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at his ranch.

More than a million people celebrated at the historic ceremony in Khartoum on July 8, when the burly and bearded Garang was sworn in as vice president under a U.S.-backed peace deal between the Arab-led Khartoum government and the largely African rebel forces of the marginalized south that had long fought for separation.

On Monday, Sudanese officials said the peace deal must be upheld. Lt. Gen Omar Hassan Bashir, Sudan's president and the man Garang once proclaimed as his sworn enemy, called for calm and said in a statement that the country faced "a difficult test." A funeral was expected to be scheduled at New Site.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed "great sorrow" at Garang's death and urged Sudanese leaders to "continue with the process of reconciliation." Annan said Bashir assured him that he would work "very, very closely" with Garang's movement to advance the peace process. "We should all do whatever we can to ensure that it doesn't unravel," Annan said.

The United States, meanwhile, drafted a U.N. Security Council statement lauding Garang for his role in ending Sudan's civil war and calling on Sudanese people "to honor his memory by restoring peace and calm throughout Sudan."

In Khartoum, however, widespread rioting was reported throughout the day. The airport was closed, and diplomats said they heard gunfire throughout the capital. There were also reports of unrest in areas of southern Sudan.

"There are massive riots here. There's a lot of destruction of property. It has now gone to also burning vehicles, instead of just smashing windows. We received reports that the army now is deploying to get the situation under control," said Col. Bjarne Giske, head of the Joint Monitoring Commission, a U.S.-backed force, speaking from Khartoum.


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