Sudanese Riots Follow a Leader's Death

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Deadly riots break out in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum after John Garang, longtime leader of Sudan's southern rebels, was confirmed dead in a helicopter crash. Police say at least 24 people were killed Monday. Garang's helicopter went down in bad weather near the southern border with Uganda. He was sworn in as Sudan's vice president just three weeks ago. Hear Melissa Block and reporter Noel King.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Deadly riots broke out today in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan in East Africa.

(Soundbite of crowd noises)

BLOCK: Rioters clashed with police, throwing stones and smashing windows. At least 24 people were killed in the violence. The riots began after the longtime leader of Sudan's southern rebels, John Garang, was confirmed dead in a helicopter crash. His helicopter went down in bad weather near the southern border with Uganda. Just three weeks ago, John Garang was sworn in as Sudan's vice president. He was a key player in January's peace deal that ended 21 years of fighting. We'll hear more about his life and the reaction to his death in a few minutes. First, to Khartoum, where a government curfew has now brought relative calm. Free-lance reporter Noel King described for us how the day unfolded.

Ms. NOEL KING (Reporter): And a few minutes after 10:00, there was the sound of gunfire. People moved to the roofs of houses to watch what was going on, but within a few minutes, Sudanese security forces had asked people to come down and from that point, Sudanese security was standing on top of the roofs. What they were looking at mainly was small explosions and billowing smoke from areas around where the president, Omar al-Bashir, has his offices, and you could see sort of smoke billowing up into the air. You could hear explosions every five or 10 minutes, and then you could hear gunshots, sometimes heavy gunfire, throughout the rest of the afternoon.

BLOCK: Now on the one side, you had the Sudanese police, whom you mentioned, and on the other, would these be southern Sudanese supporters of John Garang?

Ms. KING: These were, for the most part, southern Sudanese supporters of John Garang. Not all southern Sudanese, of course, were involved in this. Initially, reports of John Garang's death were very, very confused, and many people understood that he was still alive. Now when people found out that he had been confirmed dead, of course, rumors started to fly--unconfirmed rumors, mind you--that Garang had been killed either by the government, the northern government in Khartoum, or by a bomb or by an opposition group. No one was really sure whom.

The violence seems to have started when people got the idea that Garang's death was not an accident, that his plane was, in fact, taken out of the sky by some unknown party. Now many, many people, of course, responded by grieving, but some people--particularly teen-agers, young men--took to the streets, and that was how the rioting started and culminated.

BLOCK: You mentioned the rumor mill that's actively under way with theories about how this helicopter, in fact, crashed. It's worth pointing out that it did go down in territory controlled by the southern rebels and in bad weather, apparently.

Ms. KING: That is what everyone has said so far. I spoke to an elderly man this morning who told me the Arabs put a bomb on the plane. And I think it's statements like that and rumors like that that get started, and then from there, of course, it makes it very, very difficult to sort of extract the truth from this web of rumors and suppositions. And right now there are a lot of conspiracy theorists here; there always have been.

BLOCK: What was the extent of the damage?

Ms. KING: Well, during the afternoon, it was almost impossible to tell. My neighborhood was surrounded by police officers who would not allow me to return home. I eventually ended up barricaded inside of an abandoned building with an elderly pharmacy owner. When I was allowed to leave around 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon, walking through the streets, you could see that shop windows had been shattered, produce had been flung from the shelves. The streets themselves were littered with glass, bottles, things of that nature. There was a van parked by the side of the road that had obviously been firebombed. I mean, it was smouldering as I walked past. No cars were allowed in the streets, shops were completely shut down and there were electricity cuts on and off throughout the city during the afternoon.

BLOCK: Has there been any official response to John Garang's death from President Bashir, his onetime enemy?

Ms. KING: President Bashir did send out a press statement this afternoon telling people to remain calm and saying that John Garang's death was a tragedy. The peace agreement had really warmed up the relations between those two men, and it seems as if the Sudanese government truly is grieving. And I think that in terms of the peace agreement, President al-Bashir is justified in being very, very sorry because this will almost certainly complicate things with respect to the new government and to the peace agreement.

BLOCK: Noel King is a free-lance reporter in Khartoum, Sudan.

Ms. King, thanks very much.

Ms. KING: Thank you.

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