John Garang, who led southern rebels for 21 years in a war against Sudan's government, died in a helicopter crash only weeks after being sworn in as the country's No. 2 leader in a power-sharing agreement that raised hopes of a lasting peace. He was 60.
The charismatic Garang was seen as key to bringing southerners — a mixed population of Christians and animists — into a government long dominated by northern Muslims. Southerners are to be given a chance to vote on secession in six years, and President Omar el-Bashir wants to keep Sudan unified, and no doubt hoped Garang would be an ally in that campaign.
Garang, who survived multiple assassination attempts and several violent splits in his rebel movement, died during peacetime as he returned aboard a Ugandan presidential helicopter from a private trip to Uganda. Uganda had supported Garang during the war but recently pledged to repair its relationship with Khartoum.
The helicopter he was traveling in crashed into the side of a southern Sudan mountain range in bad weather, killing him and 13 other people on board, Sudan's government said Monday.
Violence broke out in Khartoum Monday, with groups of men setting fire to at least 10 private and government cars. Anti-riot police were deployed to several areas where crowds of southern Sudanese were pelting passers-by with stones and smashing car windows.
"We lost Garang at a time when we needed him the most, but we think that we have made great strides toward peace and we believe that that peace process should continue," said Garang aide Nihal Deng during an emergency Cabinet meeting.
The Sudan peace deal also promises the south a share of power, a say in their region's resources and a promise of democratic elections. No other figures in the south have Garang's weight and influence to bring to the table as north and south work out a power-sharing government and try to establish rebel fighters as a force alongside the Sudanese military.
Over more than two decades, he dominated the scene in the south, using what critics and admirers alike called his ability "to juggle a stone and an egg." He held together his often fractious Sudan People's Liberation Army through force of personality and wheeling and dealing among the south's multiple tribes. His critics accused him of wielding dictatorial control over the rebel movement.
His rebels' "human rights record is poor because of the lack of accountability," Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch once said. "That has led to a lot of abuses that have never been punished, including summary executions, disappearances, prolonged arbitrary detentions, corrupt transactions and the taking of food from civilians."
Garang, in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press, dismissed such allegations.
"A movement that has lasted 20 years will have its critics," he said. "Which leader never gets criticized? ... Our (human rights) record is available for scrutiny by history."
Garang insisted throughout that his goal was not to break the south away from Sudan but to create a secular state where southerners' rights were respected. Successive Khartoum governments sought to impose Islamic law in Sudan.
"Did you ever see a government pray?" Garang — who described himself as an "Episcopalian-stroke-Lutheran" — would often tell his troops, sparking rounds of laughter. "A government never goes to church and it never goes to mosque."
He became the face of the southern Sudanese cause. A Dinka tribesman from a small southern village, he mixed easily with his fighters, joking with them in crowds in the dusty, remote villages of his homelands. Educated in the United States, he would also consult with politicians, economists and development experts in capitals around the globe.
Sudan's peace agreement, sealed in January, gave Garang the second most powerful position in the government. And when he came to Khartoum to claim it in July — setting foot in the capital for the first time in 22 years — he was welcomed by giant crowds of southerners and northerners, celebrating his presence as a sign that the peace was real. He was sworn in as first vice president on July 9.
He was warmly embraced by his longtime enemy, el-Bashir, who called Garang his "brother" — and the government press went from vilifying the former rebel leader to calling him "Dr. Garang" in respect almost overnight. Garang has a doctorate in economics from the United States.
The settlement also made Garang president of southern Sudan, letting him set up an interim administration there until a referendum in six years' time on secession.
The civil war, which began in 1983, left some 2 million people dead from fighting, famine or disease
John Garang de Mabior was born in June 1945 into the Dinka Nilotic tribe in the village of Buk, in Bor County. Education was an immediate priority, and he attended Bussere Intermediate School in nearby Wau.
"It was only chance; no one in my village could even read," he told Sudanese national TV in January.
At 18, he left high school to join the first southern rebellion in 1963. But he said guerrilla leaders urged him to finish school, which he eventually did in Tanzania.
He later attended Grinnell College in Iowa, graduating in 1969 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, after which he returned to Africa with a fellowship to study at Dar es Salaam University, Tanzania — then a hotbed of radical thinking. There he met Yoweri Museveni, who would later lead a rebellion in Uganda from 1981-86 and become a key ally. Museveni is now Uganda's president.
Garang returned to southern Sudan in 1970 and was integrated into the government army two years later when a peace deal was reached. During the next 11 years, Garang attended the U.S. Army infantry officer's course at Fort Benning, Ga., and earned his doctorate at Iowa State University.
Garang was married to Rebecca de Mabior, a leader in his Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which had been the rebels' political wing. They have five children.