Rebel Leader Returns to Khartoum After 22 years

KHARTOUM, Sudan, July 8, 2005 (AP) -- John Garang, the rebel leader in a two-decade civil war for southern autonomy, returned to a hero's welcome attended by hundreds of thousands in Khartoum Friday, his first such visit in 22 years, to take up his new position as Sudan's first vice president in the government he fought.

Former Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) rebel leader John Garang (3rd L) and Sudanese First Vice President Ali Osman Taha (L) wave at a crowd of more than one million Sudanese who gathered in the capital Khartoum's green square on Friday to welcome Garang July 8, 2005. (Reuters) .

Wearing a traditional brown short-sleeved suit and broad smile, Garang stepped off a jet at Khartoum's international airport and was greeted by about 100 government ministers, political party members and other dignitaries - some wearing business suits and others traditional white Arab gowns - who lined a red carpet and shook the influential former rebel chief's hand.

But that welcome paled in comparison to the public reception awaiting him.

Hundreds of thousands filled a vast open space in northern Khartoum called Green Square to await Garang and President Omar el-Bashir for a massive public reception. Chanting, ululating Sudanese waving flags and banners crammed the square, with people perching on palm trees and clinging to antennas in bids to catch a glimpse of Garang.

Sudan state television, broadcasting Garang's return live, estimated 4 million people could turn out to welcome the former Sudan People's Liberation Army leader. Some 3.5 million southerners alone live in the capital.

"I congratulate the Sudanese people, this is not my peace or the peace of el-Bashir, it is the peace of the Sudanese people," Garang told a joyous crowd of some 400 people who gathered under a large canvas tent at the headquarters of el-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party for an official welcoming.

"I am among my people. I didn't return to Sudan, I was always in Sudan," Garang said before clasping one of the Sudanese president's hands and raising it above his head.

El-Bashir, whose warm embrace of Garang sparked whistling and cheers, said: "We welcome our brother John Garang and your colleagues, you are welcome in your country, your homeland. You are among your people on this bright day."

The longtime foes, who will now lead Sudan's post southern civil war-future, later drove in white limousines along a highway lined by thousands of people, including several hundred children wearing white T-shirts with Garang's grinning face, toward the giant public reception in Green Square.

Loudspeakers on a truck blared slogans of welcome, saying "Our heroic leader is coming to Khartoum today," as people in buses carried banners in English and Arabic and pictures of a smiling Garang carrying a small child.

"Garang is a hero who succeeded in leading his people to victory," said William Ezekiel, managing editor of the Khartoum Monitor, an English language newspaper currently suspended by the government. "His coming means a new page in Sudan...a new era in Sudanese politics whereby a non-Muslim can take up such a position."

No Christian or a southerner has ever held such a high position in Sudan's largely Islamic government.

The stage was set for Garang's arrival and vice presidency by the January signing of a comprehensive peace agreement that called for a coalition government, wealth and power sharing and democratic elections within three years. Earlier this week, the National Assembly, or parliament, and Garang's Sudan Legislative Council approved an interim constitution that said Islamic law will not be applied in the mainly Christian and animist south.

Garang, 60, will be sworn in as first vice president on Saturday, after which he and el-Bashir will sign th

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