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Sudan Rebel Turned Vice President John Garang Dies

John Garang

Sudanese Vice President John Garang, who had survived assassination attempts and violent splits in his rebel movement during a civil war, has died in peacetime, the victim of a helicopter crash.

Garang was the charismatic leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM, which dominated the southern part of the country and fought against the government in Khartoum for more than two decades.

The group signed a widely-hailed peace deal with the government earlier this year, ending Africa's longest-running civil war. In July, Mr. Garang became the first vice president in a national unity government.

Announcing the agreement in January, Mr. Garang said it takes determination and hard decisions to achieve peace. He pointed to the peace deal as the first of many hills to be overcome, a comment that was met with hearty applause.

Mr. Garang came from humble roots. He was born in 1945, in a small Dinka village in southern Sudan. Education was a priority throughout his life. After attending school locally and in Tanzania, he received a bachelor's degree from Grinnell College in the U.S. state of Iowa. He later received a doctorate from Iowa State University.

His military training included a stint at the U.S. Army infantry officer's course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was married to Rebecca de Mabior, another SPLM leader. They have five children.

Human rights groups had criticized Mr. Garang for not investigating human rights abuses committed by his movement's military wing during the civil war. But after the war was over, Mr. Garang expressed strong concern for the welfare of the people of southern Sudan.

In Washington in June, he told VOA's Africa Journal that, despite the peace agreement and more than $4 billion in international aid pledges, the situation in his home region is still desperate.

"So, there is an irony of having signed a peace agreement, and the humanitarian situation in southern Sudan actually worsens," he said.

He also spoke about the continuing and more recent conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, which has echoes of the North-South civil war.

"We stand in solidarity with the people of Darfur. It is a horrific situation," he said. "Within a space of three years, more than two million people were displaced, and they now live in very miserable conditions and in camps for the internally displaced. Some have been driven into exile."

Two decades ago, Mr. Garang led rebels against Khartoum to end Arab and Muslim domination of the black, animist and Christian south. More recently, he offered to deploy some of his former rebel troops to help provide security in Darfur, alongside forces from the Sudanese government and the African Union.

American University's George Ayitteh describes the loss of John Garang as a great setback for Sudan's peace process.

"John Garang, right now, means quite a lot to Sudan, in the sense that, here was a man who had fought for nearly 15 years in the bush, and was willing to sit down with the Khartoum government, was willing to make a peace accord with the Khartoum government," he said.

Mr. Garang had been in his position as Sudan's vice president less than one month. The helicopter transporting him back to Sudan from a private trip to Uganda crashed in bad weather on Sunday, killing him and everyone else on board. He was 60 years old.