Sudanese Vice President Dies in Helicopter Crash

John Garang speaks after a U.N. Security Council meeting in February.

John Garang speaks after the United Nations Security Council met in New York on Feb. 8 Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Sudanese vice president John Garang died over the weekend with 13 others when his helicopter crashed en route from Uganda. The former rebel leader was sworn in as the country's first vice president weeks ago. News of Garang's death sparked riots in Khartoum, Sudan's capital.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Sudan's government is reporting the death of John Garang in a helicopter crash. He's a former rebel leader. Only weeks earlier, he'd been sworn in as the first vice president of Sudan. Garang's aircraft was missing in bad weather on Saturday after he was returning from a meeting with Uganda's president. On news of Garang's death, rioting broke out in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, with looting and clashes with police.

We're joined now by NPR's Africa correspondent, Jason Beaubien. And, Jason, how significant is this man's death?

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

This is a huge blow to Sudan. And the riots in Khartoum that have broken out today are sort of an indication of how fragile the peace deal for Sudan really was. There's still a lot of tension between northerners and southerners, and Garang was the man that was seen as the person to sort of pull the country back together. Garang, for 20 years, was the leader of the SLPA, which fought against the government in Khartoum mainly because southerners felt that they were being marginalized, oppressed by the government in Khartoum, and it's not just the south that feels that way. Also in Darfur, the entire problem there has the same roots, and the hope was that Garang, as vice president, which he only went into three weeks ago, would be able to pull the country together. So it's a huge loss for Sudan.

INSKEEP: Well, now what does this mean for this peace deal from January that ended the conflict in southern Sudan?

BEAUBIEN: Well, I talked to some people from the SPLM, which is Garagn's political movement, and they're saying so long as there was no foul play, they very much want to move forward with the peace deal. They, at the same time, are saying that they want a full investigation. There's still a lot of suspicion. People are asking questions about why this helicopter went down. It was a modern helicopter. It belonged to Ugandan President Museveni. It had equipment that was supposed to allow it to fly in these conditions, so there's still questions. It's going to be difficult, however, to move forward with the same pace, and the pace was going incredibly slowly for the southern Sudan peace deal, even with Garang there leading the way. So it's also a blow to the south-north peace deal.

INSKEEP: And it does raise the question, when you lose a charismatic leader like this, a question of succession. Who comes next?

BEAUBIEN: Yes. Very much so, and particularly in the case of the SPLA, Garang's rebel movement, which is now the SPLM, Garang was very much the face qf that movement and very much the only one who had been out in the international media and was very well-known, and also the person who was pulling all of south Sudan together. South Sudan is made up of many different tribes. They don't always get along. Garang managed to pull them together, say, `This is what we want to do, we want to move forward, we want to either be part of this entire new Sudan or we want to be an autonomous region,' and he put forward that vision. There's no one standing in the wings who is as well-known and as charismatic as Garang. So it is a huge loss for the movement and a blow to the people of south Sudan, who were hoping that a lot of the rough patches that they had been going through would now be finally smoothed over.

INSKEEP: Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien, who has extensively covered the situation in Sudan and is talking to us today from his office in Johannesburg.

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