Ex-rebel leader John Garang made a triumphant return to Khartoum on Friday, greeted as a brother by the president and as a celebrity by hundreds of thousands of supporters hopeful for a new era after Africa's longest civil war.

His arrival on a scorching day was a landmark step in a U.S.-backed January peace deal that requires Sudan's Muslim-dominated, northern-based regime to share power and wealth with the long-marginalized southerners. Garang was to be sworn in to the government's second-most powerful post, first vice president, on Saturday.

A red carpet greeting at Khartoum's airport was followed by an official welcoming reception during which President Omar Hassan Bashir held his former enemy's hand in the air and repeatedly called him "our brother."

"You will find the hearts of all Sudanese open to you," Bashir promised. "This war has stopped finally and forever."

A smiling Garang was interrupted by ululating women and shouts of God is great and "Hallelujah" as he told the nearly 400 guests under a large tent at the ruling party headquarters that he was home among his people.

"I congratulate the Sudanese people, this is not my peace or the peace of Bashir, it is the peace of the Sudanese people," Garang said.

Garang, a burly, bearded warrior from southern Sudan's large Dinka tribe, was a key partner in peace negotiations that resulted in January's agreement. The deal ended the 21-year civil war that left more than 2 million dead, mostly through war-induced famine.

Many in Khartoum welcomed Garang's arrival as a prelude to better times and an end to long years of fighting. A new government is scheduled to be installed in August. In a sign of unity, Friday's security arrangements were shared by the Sudanese Army and Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army, which both guarded roadways and the perimeter of the city's Green Square, where Garang made an appearance. Secret service units blended into the massive crowd.

Hundreds of thousands of people -- mainly Sudanese from the country's southern and western regions -- who had been waiting up to six hours under a blistering sun for Garang's arrival screamed with joy when he stepped onto a stage. Garang waved and blew kisses, each one greeted with roars of approval by the throng that pressed closer to get a view.

The square was made to accommodate half a million people, and the crush of people stretched out from the stage to the far end of the square.

"It's a day of merriment, a day of joy," Marina Lako, 32, said. "The fact that Garang has come means to us the war has stopped . . . as women, we lost many of our beloved ones. So the end of the war means a lot to us. This is the day of the people."

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir, right, with former rebel leader John Garang in Khartoum.