- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

The death of Sudan’s vice president and former rebel leader John Garang could not be more unfortunate. His passing threatens the already vulnerable peace and power-sharing deal that has ended a two-decade long civil war between the government in the north and fighters in the south of the country. The north-south civil war in Sudan killed about two million people and caused a severe famine and refugee crisis. The Bush administration, former Secretary of State Colin Powell in particular, was deeply involved in mediating a peace accord that was signed in January and brought Mr. Garang into the government a few weeks ago. U.S. officials should be prepared to continue helping to maintain the peace.

Mr. Garang and 13 others died when their helicopter crashed in the mountains of southern Sudan. Violent riots have followed his death in the capital Khartoum and other towns. At least 130 have been killed and hundreds more injured.

What Sudan mostly needs now is a transparent investigation of the crash. Sudanese President Omar Bashir has taken the important step of allowing a panel of aviation experts from Uganda, Kenya, the United States, Britain and Russia to investigate. That probe could do much to ratchet down tensions. Mr. Garang’s former rebel group, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has also tried to quell the riots by calling on the Sudanese people to patiently await the investigation’s results. This reasonable rhetoric must continue, or the rioting could spiral out of control.

Sadly, not all leaders have given voice to reason. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has already begun speculating out loud that Mr. Garang was intentionally targeted and killed. Mr. Museveni, who was the owner of the helicopter Mr. Garang was traveling in, told a large crowd of mourners last week: “Some people say accident, it may be an accident, it may be something else.”

Given the timing of Mr. Garang’s death and the violence that has prevailed between the north and south, it is hardly implausible that people might have wanted to kill him. Still, Mr. Garang was flying through some difficult terrain and there is no hint or evidence of foul play. Mr. Museveni should therefore refrain from unnecessarily inflaming tensions ahead of the results of the investigation. If Mr. Garang was indeed assassinated, the perpetrators could well have been trying to instigate another outbreak of ethnic violence. Mr. Museveni and others should be careful not to aid and abet such violence.

Mr. Garang’s successor as vice president and chief of SPLM, Salva Kiir, now faces the difficult task of not only keeping the north-south peace accord together, but also brokering an agreement with rebels from the ravaged western region of Darfur. As a rebel leader, Mr. Garang carried high hopes of striking a trust and dialogue with Darfur rebels. If Mr. Kiir is to be a true statesman for Sudan, he must look beyond the needs of his people in the south, and also defend the Darfurians, who, according to Mr. Powell, have been victims of genocide perpetrated by government-back marauding tribes. The violence in Darfur has killed tens of thousands and forced about 2 million from their homes. The head of Doctors Without Borders International, Dr. Rowan Gillies, said last week, “Our teams are still witnessing repeated violence against the population.”

President Bush has dispatched two envoys to Sudan: Constance Newman, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Roger Winter, special envoy for Sudan. Those U.S. officials have met with Mr. Kiir. If the investigation rules out foul play in Mr. Garang’s death, then those U.S. officials should help reestablish goodwill between the north and south.

Ultimately, it is the Sudanese people who will decide if they will let Mr. Garang’s death propel them back into ruinous war, but top U.S. officials must be prepared to shepherd the two sides back towards mutual trust, if need be, and urge other leaders to avoid incendiary rhetoric. If poverty and instability are indeed fodder for global terrorism, then Sudan’s fate is a global concern.

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