Khartoum, Sudan Sudanese Vice President John Garang, a former rebel leader who is a key figure in the country's fledgling peace deal, was found dead early today near the Uganda-Sudan border after the helicopter he was riding in crashed, a senior Ugandan official said.
Six of Garang's aides and eight Ugandans were also killed, the official said. The crash site was in southern Sudan, near the border with northeast Uganda, the official said on condition of anonymity because an official announcement hadn't yet been made.
Ugandan and Sudanese forces had been searching for Garang's helicopter since Sunday. Uganda's president said it had crashed in bad weather.
Garang's death 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, on July 9, 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.
Garang's 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.
Garang, who earned a doctorate from Iowa State University, was 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 seen as a great hope for peace in Darfur.
His flight's disappearance brought up the specter 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.
A Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army, operates in the area where Garang's helicopter crashed. It has shot down Ugandan military helicopters in the past.