A senior Ugandan official said Monday that Sudanese Vice President John Garang has been confirmed dead in a helicopter crash in southern Sudan.
Ugandan and Sudanese forces had been searching for Garang's helicopter since Sunday. Uganda's president said it had crashed in bad weather in the border region between the two countries.
Garang's death would be considered a heavy blow to the January peace deal that ended a 21-year civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south in which some 2 million people died.
An official in Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army also told the Associated Press that Garang's death had been confirmed. The official, in Khartoum, had spoken with SPLA leaders who were meeting at their headquarters in the southern town of Rombeck. They were planning to give an official announcement soon, the official said, without specifying when.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was giving the information before the announcement.
The 60-year-old former rebel, who was sworn in as vice president just three weeks ago, left on a flight from Uganda for southern Sudan at 5:30 p.m. Ugandan time Saturday afternoon, Sudanese and Ugandan officials said. It was not clear when the last contact with his craft took place.
Garang's helicopter had attempted to land in the New Kush region of southern Sudan but aborted the landing because of bad weather and headed back south, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said early Monday. Weather reports showed rain in the area.
The craft was heard near Pirre, a mountainous region near the Kenyan and Sudanese borders on the edge of a large national park, and was believed to have crash-landed, Museveni said. He added that the Kenyans had been asked to help in the search.
From Sudan, there were contradictory reports over the disappearance, although there was no word of foul play.
Sudanese state television reported Sunday night that Garang's craft had landed safely, but Communications Minister Abdel-Basit Sabdarat went on TV hours later to deny the report. "Up to now we do not have any concrete new information about the whereabouts" of Garang's flight, he said.
Garang, who earned a doctorate from Iowa State University, is seen as the sole figure with the weight to give southern Sudanese a role in the Khartoum government, which they deeply mistrust. He also was a strong voice against outright secession by the south, calling instead for autonomy and power-sharing.
Sudanese have celebrated the power-sharing agreement -- and a new constitution signed afterward -- as opening a new chapter of peace and as a chance to resolve other bloody conflicts in Sudan, including the humanitarian crisis in the western region of Darfur.
Garang was sworn in as vice president on July 9 -- second only to his longtime enemy, President Omar el-Bashir. He and el-Bashir were to work on setting up a power-sharing government and on elevating Garang's rebel troops to an equal status with the Sudanese military.
There is no other leader of Garang's stature in the former rebel movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which he founded and dominated for 21 years. His arrival in Khartoum on July 8 to take the vice president's post brought millions of southerners and northerners to the streets in celebration.
His flight's disappearance evoked memories of the 1994 downing of the airplane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been trying to implement a power-sharing deal between his fellow Hutus and the rival Tutsis. His death opened the doors to the Rwandan genocide in which more than 500,000 people were killed, following months of preparation by Hutu extremists.