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Sudanese crowd streets to greet former rebel

7/8/2005 11:24pm

By Opheera McDoom

KHARTOUM, July 8 (Reuters) - Former southern Sudanese rebel leader John Garang arrived in Khartoum on Friday to be sworn in as first vice president in a government born out of a peace agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war.

Garang, leader of the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, was greeted by more than one million Sudanese as he arrived in the capital for the first time in more than 20 years.

He was drowned out by joyous crowds chanting his name as he tried to deliver a speech at Khartoum's main Green Square where people had waited patiently since early morning.

"This is the first time he's putting his feet in Khartoum in 22-23 years," Norwegian International Development Minister Hilde Johnson told Reuters on Garang's arrival. "It is a historic day ... which turns a new chapter in Sudanese history."

The SPLM signed a peace deal in January to end Africa's longest civil war. The deal paves the way for wealth and power sharing and a new coalition government, which will be headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with Garang as his deputy.

Both Bashir and Garang will be sworn in on Saturday in the presence of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Arab League chief Amr Moussa, senior U.S. officials and several African presidents, including South Africa's Thabo Mbeki.

"Welcome to you and to your people, welcome to you in Khartoum, welcome to you from all the people of Sudan," Bashir told Garang at the headquarters of the ruling National Congress Party, which has dominated Sudanese politics since a military coup in 1989.

Garang said he was among brothers and sisters in Khartoum. "I want to say to you all, congratulations to you on the peace which belongs to you," he told people at party headquarters. "It's not my peace, it's your peace, the people of Sudan."

The SPLM fought a long guerrilla war to gain more equality for people in the south. The conflict, which claimed 2 million lives, broadly pitted the Islamist government in Khartoum against the mostly Christian and animist south. It was complicated by issues of oil, ethnicity and ideology.

The huge crowd in Green Square briefly turned violent with supporters clashing with police, but all was quickly forgotten when Garang appeared. Both northerners and southerners fell over each other, some people fainting from the heat, to catch a glimpse of the man they consider their hero of peace.

Dressed informally in a red paisley shirt, Garang waved to the people but could not make himself heard over the crowd shouting, "Welcome, welcome, John Garang." People clambered up trees, covered rooftops and a brave few slithered up the 25-metre high poles of the floodlights in the square.


"This is a landmark day in the history of Sudan. This is a new era in Sudan, an era of peace, democracy and transformation," said Najeeb al-Kheir Abdul Wahab, state minister for foreign relations.

Thousands jammed the streets bringing traffic to a standstill. Music blared and people danced, despite Islamic sharia law prohibiting mixed dancing still in force in the capital.

"Now we have no freedom, we have no places to live, but when he comes everyone will walk in the road not fearing anything," said southerner Peter Kwech, who lives in Khartoum.

Under the deal Sudan's current ruling party will have 52 percent of government and parliament, and Garang's movement 28 percent, with northern and southern opposition parties taking the remaining 20 percent. The south is to vote in a referendum within six years on secession from Khartoum.

Garang and Bashir are expected to form the new coalition government by August 9. Garang will also hold talks with southern militias who have not signed the peace deal.

The deal does not cover a separate conflict in the western region of Darfur where tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 2 million driven from their homes since rebels took up arms in early 2003.

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