Sudan toll rises as Garang funeral draws near

The death toll from days of rioting triggered by the death of John Garang hit 130 on Thursday as throngs of south Sudanese paid tribute to their revered former rebel leader on the journey to his final resting place.

Garang’s successor as leader of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Salva Kiir, was appointed to take his place as First Vice-President in a power-sharing government set up under a January peace deal, as international pressure mounted to prevent the hard-won agreement unravelling.

The streets of Khartoum were quieter after the frenzy of ethnically driven violence that erupted following Garang’s death in a helicopter crash on Saturday that has raised fears for the future of the war-ravaged country.

Heavily armed Sudanese police and soldiers continued to patrol central Khartoum, while the sight of smashed shop windows and burnt-out vehicles on the streets bore witness to the tensions between southerners and northerners.

Residents reported that even in the township suburbs, where the clashes between mainly Christian or animist southerners and Muslim northerners had been most intense, an uneasy calm had returned.

However, a few men armed with clubs continued to roam the streets in the suburbs worst hit by the violence.

“Our latest toll is 130 dead and 402 wounded, including 111 dead and 345 wounded in the capital, Khartoum, and 13 dead and 20 wounded in Juba and six dead and 37 wounded in Malakal,” said Larena Brander, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The international community issued urgent appeals for calm, fearing the death of the former rebel leader could plunge Africa’s largest country into fresh turmoil and scupper the January deal that turned the page on 21 years of civil war between north and south.

In a bid to ease tensions, Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir announced on Wednesday the establishment of a committee to probe Garang’s death, which many of his supporters claim was no accident.

Both Beshir and Kiir have urged an end to rioting, saying it threatens to return the country to the horrors of the civil war, in which about two million people died.

Former fighters of the SPLM deployed to the main southern city of Juba for the first time ever as the former rebel movement and the government joined forces to try to end the violence.

Garang is to be buried in Juba on Saturday even though he never set foot in the heavily fortified garrison town, which remained in government hands throughout the war.

Witnesses recounted a day of clashes in Juba on Wednesday, saying southerners burned and looted businesses owned by Arabs.

“They burnt down our shops and homes and we had no choice but to find safety,” one trader said at Juba airport, where a sea of people dozed on boxes and nylon sacks filled with their belongings.

Garang’s body was flown out of his New Site base to the remote town of Kurmuk on the first leg of its journey to Juba, where his funeral is expected to draw half-a-million mourners.

The airborne funeral procession is to pass through five towns across Garang’s stronghold before his body is finally laid to rest.

In Kurmuk, 11 former fighters of the SPLM served as pallbearers, carrying the coffin from the landing strip to a makeshift bier in a mourning tent as up to 3 000 mourners looked on.

Some had placed roses outside in memory of the man who had led them through the long years of civil war.

As the plane carrying his flag-draped coffin left New Site, a priest offered prayers and comfort to Garang’s widow, Rebecca, and urged southerners to remain united behind the former rebel leader’s vision for south Sudan.

“If you are divided, you will be destroyed, but if you are united, you will stand,” said Father Bahjat Batarseh.

The United States, which invested a great deal of political capital in January’s peace deal, called on the government and the former rebels to work together to shore up the agreement.

“We urge the government of national unity to continue to take steps to stop the violence, to promote reconciliation and to maintain momentum on implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement,” US State Department spokesperson Tom Casey said.

Britain, meanwhile, warned its nationals against travelling to Sudan or the Eritrean border and the US told its citizens in the country to avoid travel.—Sapa-AFP

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