- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

Fears that Africa’s longest-running conflict was about to resume swept across Sudan yesterday with news of the death in a helicopter crash of John Garang, a U.S. ally who gave up two decades of rebellion to become Sudan’s vice president last month.

Though both his former rebel colleagues and the government officials he once fought insisted the Sunday crash was an accident, disbelieving supporters vented their fury in the capital, Khartoum, where at least 24 persons were reported killed in clashes with police.

Bursts of automatic gunfire could be heard for much of the day, and the government ordered a dusk-till-dawn curfew.

Violence also erupted in parts of southern Sudan, from where Mr. Garang led the country’s repressed black non-Muslim minority in a 21-year armed struggle against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

The conflict claimed the lives of at least 2 million people and was resolved only after Mr. Garang’s cause was taken up by religious conservatives in the United States, who saw the war as a Christian-against-Muslim struggle.

International pressure, driven by President Bush’s administration, led to a peace deal being concluded late last year. With massive pledges of aid for the south, one of the least developed regions in the world, hopes were high that one of Africa’s most bitterly divided nations was at last moving in the right direction.

An investigation was ordered into the cause of the crash in southwestern Sudan, which took the lives of all 14 persons on board. Mr. Garang had been returning to Sudan after a meeting in Uganda, and officials said bad weather may have been to blame.

In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist described Mr. Garang as “a personal friend” and extended “deepest sympathies to his family, his friends and the Sudanese people.”

“I also urge calm among the Sudanese people right now, and call on them to fulfill John Garang’s vision of peace and unity and to recommit themselves to implementing the comprehensive peace agreement in his honor,” Mr. Frist said.

Mr. Garang’s death after just three weeks as vice president will also damage hopes for a resolution to a separate conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Western nations had hoped his moderate voice could persuade Khartoum to end its support for the Arab militias that have brought misery to one of the world’s most benighted quarters.

There were fears yesterday that Khartoum’s Islamic government could be tempted to capitalize on Mr. Garang’s death by sowing divisions within his former rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

That would not be hard to accomplish. The SPLM has long been riven by bickering factions, loosely divided along tribal lines.

The acrimony was set aside yesterday as the SPLM’s leadership gathered round the flag-draped body of the man who led them for so long. The leaders then met in an adjoining room to name Salva Kiir, Mr. Garang’s former deputy, as the new leader of the south and vice president of Sudan.

“The seminal issue of whether Sudan goes back to war is if the SPLM stays together,” said John Prendergast, special adviser to the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based think tank. “The fear is that politicians in Khartoum will deliberately exploit divisions in an attempt to wreck the peace deal.”

Khartoum has already been accused of fanning discord by continuing to fund militias that remained outside the peace process, and any whiff of discontent could prove too irresistible a temptation for hard-liners in the government.

The West also will be concerned about Mr. Kiir’s supposed support for secession, a move never publicly supported by Mr. Garang. The new leader will be under popular pressure to change the organization’s position, but to do so could allow Khartoum to legitimately withdraw from the peace deal.

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