JUBA, Sudan (AP) – The body of former First Vice President John Garang de Mabior was received in Juba on Saturday by an honor guard of eight officers, four each from his former rebel movement and the Sudanese Army, ahead of his state funeral at a cathedral here.
A 50-strong army delegation, in dark blue uniforms and white turbans with black feathers, lined the runway as the coffin was carried to a waiting vehicle.
Overhead, a United Nations helicopter patrolled the skies, and soldiers from Sudan”s elite presidential guard held positions on rooftops and control towers to protect the airport, which had already seen the arrival of national and foreign dignitaries.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir Mayardit, the new leader of the Sudan People”s Liberation Movement, met at the airport for the first time earlier Saturday.
Kiir, chosen by the SPLM to succeed Garang, is expected to be inaugurated next week as al-Bashir”s first vice president.
Women sobbed loudly and hugged each other in the courtyard of the All Saint”s Cathedral where the multi-denominational service was to be held. A choir sang, "When the Saints Come Marching In" and other songs as guests arrived. Some children lining the path to the church held wooden crosses.
Black banners were hung throughout the city, reading: "Dr. Garang, your physical body is gone, but your inspiration and vision live with us forever." Radio programs played messages of condolences.
Saturday was declared a national holiday so all Sudanese could follow the funeral.
In the past two days, Garang”s body was flown from town to town in the south so his many supporters could pay final respects to the leader who fought for two decades for southern equality.
Juba was filled with SPLM supporters who flew in on charter flights from Khartoum and neighboring countries. Heads of state of South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, as well as other foreign diplomats, arrived at the tightly secured airport.
Members of the elite presidential guard stood on rooftops and control towers, scanning the area through binoculars. Some sat behind anti-aircraft guns, others toted rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.
In the city, thousands of soldiers were deployed, some stationed every 10 meters (yards) on keys roads. Garang and 12 others were killed July 30 in a helicopter crash that the Sudanese government and SPLM say was an accident, though an investigation is planned. The United Nations, Kenya and Uganda, who provided the helicopter, were participating in the probe.
Ugandan President Museveni, a close friend of Garang, told mourners in the southern town of Yei on Friday that the cause of the helicopter crash that killed Garang was not clear.
"Some people say accident; it may be an accident, it may be something else," Museveni said. "Either the pilot panicked, either there was some side wind or the instruments failed or there was an external factor."
The Sudanese government said raising possibilities of the cause would only damage the investigation. "We are making efforts to investigate the saddening incident and we have already started our investigations by setting up a technical committee and we hope that all parties, especially Uganda, would stop issuing statements which are not based on facts," Information Minister Abdel-Basit Sabdera told the official Sudan News Agency.
The helicopter”s black box has been found but not yet studied, Sabdera said.
The SPLM also said it would wait for the investigation. "Until the investigation results are out, we are not going to point any fingers in any direction," said SPLM spokesman Yasir Arman.
Jan Pronk, the U.N. special representative to Sudan, told reporters on his arrival in Juba Saturday that U.N. experts who had visited the crash site had no reason to believe there was foul play.
"Until the investigation is concluded, we cannot exclude anything, but there is no reason to assume anything else other than an accident," he said, suggesting that the pilot might not have been familiar with the terrain, that it was dark and the weather was bad.
"It was a tragic accumulation of facts," Pronk said. Other dignitaries expected to attend the funeral included South African President Thabo Mbeki, Kenyan leader Mwai Kibaki and Garang”s longtime friend and backer, Uganda”s President Yoweri Museveni. The U.S. delegation will be led by Andrew S. Natsios, head of the United States Agency for International Development.
Garang died just three weeks after he was sworn in as first vice president in a unity government established under a peace deal ending 22 years of war between the Arab Muslim-dominated government and rebels in the African Christian and animist south. He also was installed as the president of southern Sudan”s autonomous government. Garang”s death and the days of violent clashes that followed raised fears about the stability of the peace deal struck in January. His charismatic, and sometimes strong-handed, leadership had been seen as essential to making the agreement work.
The government and the SPLM have stressed repeatedly that they are committed to the peace process. In a show of continuity, Kiir was quickly named Garang”s successor in the movement and will be sworn in next week as Sudan”s first vice president and president of the south. The accord provided for sharing of power and wealth with southerners. In six years, southerners are to have a chance to vote on secession.