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Reports Say Sudan's Garang Died in Air Crash

7/31/2005 9:37pm

The Nation (Nairobi)

Emman Omari and Bernard Namunane

Reports at dawn on Monday indicate that New Sudan's First Vice President John Garang died when a Ugandan military helicopter he was travelling in crashed on Saturday night.

Ugandan authorities lost contact with the helicopter carrying him to Juba, after a weekend meeting with President Yoweri Museveni.

The Ugandan military last night could only say that they had located a signal of the presidential helicopter carrying Colonel Garang after it lost contact in bad weather, at a spot on the border between Uganda and Sudan. However, they were yet to reach the site.

Adding to the confusion, late last night sources from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) indicated he had been located and attempts were being made to take him to Nairobi. There was no information about his condition.

The Ugandan military lost contact with the helicopter carrying Colonel Garang to Rumbek in Southern Sudan late on Saturday, sending the biggest political scare of recent months in Eastern Africa.

Military search parties were yesterday morning sent to the north of Uganda where the helicopter carrying Colonel Garang and four of his aides was said to have either landed or crashed.

The helicopter had left Entebbe airport at 8 pm on Saturday heading for Rumbek in Southern Sudan, where he was being expected by, among others, his wife Rebecca, who was a senior commander in the rebel movement.

Last night Lt Col Shaban Bantariza, the Uganda army spokesman, had said: "From contacts in the SPLM, I have just learnt that Garang has arrived in his territory after experiencing weather problems." Initial reports had indicated that the helicopter had flown into bad weather after crossing into Sudan, and was forced to land in the bush as the pilot attempted to fly back into Uganda.

But as the pilot started the flight back to Entebbe, he realised the aircraft did not have enough fuel for the trip.

Former nominated MP Mark Too, a long friend of Dr Garang, said he had established contact with the SPLM's leader's deputy Mr Salva Kiir, who confirmed to him that they were monitoring the search from Nairobi.

"Yes, he was flying in a military helicopter and his number two man who is in Nairobi confirms to me that they are monitoring the search by Ugandan forces from Nairobi," Mr Too said.

He also said that he was trying to get contact with the wife in Juba, but the satellite phone was not going through.

During the day, there were various versions about what might have happened to the First Vice-President, who officially took office two weeks ago ending over two decades of fighting, sending fears about the future of the new-found peace in Sudan.

The peace deal was negotiated in Kenya for about three years, and the agreement to end nearly 30 years of war was signed in a colourful ceremony in Nairobi early this year.

Dr Garang, 60, and his Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), and its military wing, the SPLA waged a long-drawn out war with the Khartoum government over control of southern Sudan.

The civil war that started in 1983 claimed nearly two million lives and left millions more displaced.

The war ended with the agreement signed in Nairobi in January that also saw Dr Garang named the first vice-president.

Dr Garang had just concluded talks with President Yoweri Museveni at Rwakitura in Mbarara, Western Uganda, and flew back to Entebbe in the Ugandan presidential helicopter.

After a brief stop over, the military helicopter was to fly him to Juba, the seat of his government of Southern Sudan.

One version had it that the helicopter encountered bad weather immediately after crossing into Sudan.

The pilot is understood to have radioed back to Entebbe about bad weather, and told air control that the aircraft was turning back. Sources said he radioed Entebbe seeking permission to turn back and land in Northern Uganda.

Another source indicated that in an attempt to turn back to Uganda, the helicopter might have veered into what he called "enemy territory" towards eastern Sudan, but no details were given. This part of Sudan is known to harbour Ugandan rebels known as the Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony.

Yet, another version had it that the helicopter landed safely in another town not too far from Rumbek, from where Garang travelled by road to Juba. This account could not be confirmed.

Ugandan forces late morning yesterday began an intensive search for Dr Garang , the leader of the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM).

The border between Uganda and Sudan is a mountainous region with heavy equatorial forest land that is prone to bad weather for light aircraft and helicopters.

Before flying back, Dr Garang had given Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels leader Joseph My Kony an ultimatum to leave southern Sudan.

In an exclusive interview with Uganda's New Vision, the former rebel leader said he was going to deal firmly with the militias operating in southern Sudan, in order to rebuild the war-ravaged region.

“Kony won’t be hiding there for long. It is not only Kony, but also all the militias who have been operating in the area. We need to provide peace, security and stability, so the militias including those that were formerly supported by the government, must be disbanded.”

Dr Garang flew to Uganda aboard a chartered plane on Friday for a meeting with President Museveni at Rwakitura, his country home, in the western Mbarara district. He was met at Entebbe Airport by Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya and Regional Cooperation minister Nshimye Sebuturo. He flew to Rwakitura aboard President Museveni’s helicopter.

The former SPLA leader, who controlled southern Sudan before the peace deal with the Khartoum Government, said his government's priority was to resettle displaced people and remove camps of the internally displaced people and return the Sudanese refugees.

There were between three to four million Sudanese refugees outside the country who need to be returned and resettled, he said.

His government, he added, had started rebuilding the infrastructure in the devastated region, which is home to more than 12 million people.

Dr Garang said in the next week, the 10 supervisors for the 10 southern Sudanese states would have taken office to oversee the building of the infrastructure.

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