KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) – A rebel official said Sudan’s vice president, a former rebel leader and a key figure in the country’s fledgling peace deal, was killed in a helicopter crash. Search crews reached the site early today and found a body they believe to be that of John Garang, a U.N. official said.

An official in Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army told The Associated Press that Garang’s death had been confirmed. The official, in Khartoum, had spoken with SPLA leaders who were meeting at their headquarters in the southern town of Rombeck and were planning to make an official announcement soon.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was giving the information before the announcement.

Garang’s absence would be a heavy blow to the January peace deal that ended a 21-year civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south in which some 2 million people died.

The 60-year-old former rebel, who was sworn in as vice president just three weeks ago, left on a flight from Uganda for southern Sudan at 5:30 p.m. Ugandan time Saturday afternoon, Sudanese and Ugandan officials said. It was not clear when the last contact with his craft took place.

His helicopter had attempted to land in the New Kush region of southern Sudan but aborted the landing because of bad weather and headed back south, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said early today. Weather reports showed rain in the area.

The craft was heard near Pirre, a mountainous region near the Kenyan and Sudanese borders on the edge of a large national park, and was believed to have crash-landed, Museveni said. He added that the Kenyans had been asked to help in the search.

From Sudan, there were contradictory reports over the disappearance, although there was no word of foul play.

Sudanese state television reported Sunday night that Garang’s craft had landed safely, but Communications Minister Abdel-Basit Sabdarat went on TV hours later to deny the report. “Up to now we do not have any concrete new information about the whereabouts” of Garang’s flight, he said.

Garang, who earned a doctorate from Iowa State University, is seen as the sole figure with the weight to give southern Sudanese a role in the Khartoum government, which they deeply mistrust. He also was a strong voice against outright secession by the south, calling instead for autonomy and power-sharing.

Sudanese have celebrated the power-sharing agreement – and a new constitution signed afterward – as opening a new chapter of peace and as a chance to resolve other bloody conflicts in Sudan, including the humanitarian crisis in the western region of Darfur.

Garang was sworn in as vice president on July 9 – second only to his longtime enemy, President Omar el-Bashir. He and el-Bashir were to work on setting up a power-sharing government and on elevating Garang’s rebel troops to an equal status with the Sudanese military.

There is no other leader of Garang’s stature in the former rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Libaration Army, which he founded and dominated for 21 years. His arrival in Khartoum on July 8 to take the vice president’s post brought millions of southerners and northerners to the streets in celebration.

His flight’s disappearance brought up the shadows of the 1994 downing of the airplane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been trying to implement a power-sharing deal between his fellow Hutus and the rival Tutsis. His death opened the doors to the Rwandan genocide in which more than 500,000 people were killed.

That genocide took place after months of preparation by Hutu militants – something that has not taken place in Sudan amid the good feelings over the peace deal.

Garang was returning home from a private visit to Uganda, flying from the capital Kampala to southern Sudan – a trip that normally takes about two hours – said Ugandan army spokesman 2nd Capt. Dennis Musitwa.

“We share the anxieties of the public since it is now 24 hours since the estimated time of arrival of the helicopter at its destination,” Museveni, the Ugandan president, said in his statement.

Ugandan troops and Sudanese military planes were searching for Garang’s craft in the remote border region. A Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, operates in the area and has shot down Ugandan military helicopters in the past.

Initially, Sudanese television said he left Sunday evening, heading to a former SPLA base called “Newsite” in southern Sudan. Then it aired a report that he had landed safely at a SPLA base in southern Sudan. But Sabdarat denied that report and confirmed that it had left Uganda on Saturday.

El-Bashir clearly saw Garang as an important partner in sealing the peace, ensuring the south does not secede, and in repairing Sudan’s international reputation. With a speed stunning to many in Sudan, the Sudanese state media went from describing Garang in the darkest terms to respectively calling him “Dr. Garang” after the peace deal was struck.

Mohamed Osman reported on this story from Khartoum, and Tanalee Smith reported from Kassala, Sudan.

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