WASHINGTON—U.S. diplomats are moving urgently to ensure that the death over the weekend of a senior rebel leader in Sudan doesn't derail a delicate peace process that ended a 22-year civil war.
Two senior U.S. diplomats are scheduled to arrive in Sudan Wednesday to meet with representatives of the government in Khartoum and rebels from the country's south, whose longtime leader, John Garang, died when his helicopter crashed.
Garang had been named a vice president of the country as part of the January peace agreement he helped engineer. Bad weather—not foul play—is being blamed for the crash, but Garang's death has sparked two days of riots in Khartoum that have killed at least 46.
U.S. and Sudanese officials renewed calls for calm Tuesday, and representatives of the Khartoum government and the southern rebels said they remained committed to the peace process.
Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Movement quickly named Salva Kiir, one of Garang's top deputies, to lead the group. Kiir is also expected to take over Garang's position as first vice president in the new national government.
"What we are so far seeing is an orderly and peaceful succession process for the position of first vice president," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey. "And that is something that is very positive."
The American diplomats—Connie Newman, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Roger Winter, special envoy to Sudan—are scheduled to meet with Kiir on Wednesday, Casey said. Later in the trip, they are expected meet with representatives of the Khartoum government.
Garang's death comes at a critical time for the peace agreement, which mandates power sharing for the south in the new national government. Garang was sworn in as vice president of the new government just three weeks ago and hailed as a hero. He had dissolved his movement's primary decision-making body, concentrating even more power in his hands.
Analysts say Kiir's biggest challenge in succeeding the charismatic Garang will be transforming the rebel movement into a legitimate government for the south.
"Until we have further indications of a capacity to really reform itself, to take concrete measures of improvement at all levels of governance and accountability, I will remain very concerned about the long-term prospects of the peace process," said Suliman Baldo, Africa director for the International Crisis Group.
The movement "is at a really critical moment," Baldo said. "A lot depends on how it navigates the coming weeks."
Analysts said Kiir was a good choice because he has been a loyal deputy to Garang—they come from the same tribe, the Dinka, which is the single largest southern ethnic group—while developing a reputation for at times opposing his autocratic boss.
"(Kiir) will consult more," said Hafiz Mohamed, Sudan program director for the London-based group Justice Africa. "Also, he's more democratic. There's a lot of talent there in the movement that was being oppressed by not being consulted. He will give them a chance to rise up."
Garang's death has stunned his followers, most of them Christians and animists who have felt neglected by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. In the 22-year war, some 2 million people were killed and 4 million displaced from their homes.
The peace agreement raised the expectations of southern Sudanese for a break from the violence, Baldo said, which may explain why so many of them now living in Khartoum resorted to rioting after the news of Garang's death.
"The shock was very great," Baldo said. "It puts the peace process on a very fragile edge."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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