Saturday, August 06, 2005

Ugandan Leader Hints at Foul Play in Ex-Rebel's Air Crash - New York Times

Ugandan Leader Hints at Foul Play in Ex-Rebel's Air Crash - New York Times

The New York Times
August 6, 2005
Ugandan Leader Hints at Foul Play in Ex-Rebel's Air Crash

YEI, Sudan, Aug. 5 - President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda said Friday that the helicopter crash that killed John Garang, the Sudanese rebel leader who became vice president, might not have been an accident and that an international inquiry would determine the truth.

"Some people say accident," said Mr. Museveni, whose presidential helicopter was ferrying Mr. Garang, a longtime friend and ally, from Uganda to Sudan last Saturday night when it went down on a hillside in a remote area of Sudan. "It may be something else. I am looking at all the options, all the possibilities."

Most officials in the region, including an array of rival Sudanese politicians, have said all indications were that the helicopter crashed because of bad weather. Still, to conclusively determine the cause, the Sudanese authorities have assembled an investigative team that includes experts from the United States, Uganda, Kenya and Britain. Russia, which manufactured the helicopter, an M1-172, and the United Nations will also take part.

Some Western diplomats saw the remarks by Mr. Museveni as an attempt to deflect criticism from his government, which allowed the helicopter to fly despite the late hour and apparently did not check the weather along the route, which was stormy. Fourteen people died in the crash, including Mr. Garang, his security staff and Ugandan military officers.

Speaking Friday at a memorial service for Mr. Garang in this border town, Mr. Museveni praised the aircraft and raised the prospect of foul play.

He said that the helicopter had sophisticated equipment that enabled it to fly at night and in inclement weather, and that he had used it for a short flight just half an hour before Mr. Garang boarded it for Sudan.

"Either the pilots panicked in spite of the plane having good conditions, or there was this side wind, or the instruments didn't work, or there was an external factor," he said. "The inquiry has to look at all that."

Mr. Museveni's comments came as days of rioting continued in Khartoum, the capital, where followers of Mr. Garang accused the Islamist government of orchestrating his death to eliminate an opponent. There have also been clashes in Juba, where Mr. Garang's funeral will take place Saturday.

To quell violence, Mr. Garang's widow, Rebecca, said on Monday, "It is an accident and God's plan."

Mr. Museveni's remarks raising the prospect of foul play had no immediate effect, as most of the thousands of people gathered in Yei to pay tribute to Mr. Garang did not understand English. But his speculation was expected to be widely reported in the local news media.

"The Big Man stated that the aircraft was in good condition," said Atem Akuien, 32, a local journalist who was swayed by what he heard. "Now we have suspicions. Maybe it was the people in Khartoum."

After 21 years as a rebel, Mr. Garang joined Sudan's government last month as vice president as part of a historic peace pact. His death has destabilized the peace effort.

Officials say Mr. Garang flew last Friday on a charter plane from Nairobi, Kenya, to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda for a meeting with Mr. Museveni. From Entebbe, he took a helicopter to Mr. Museveni's ranch, southwest of the capital. After discussions that lasted until Saturday, Mr. Museveni took a short trip on the helicopter. He sent the helicopter back to the ranch to pick up Mr. Garang, who was eager to return to his base in New Site, Sudan, near the border with Kenya.

With Mr. Garang aboard, the helicopter flew to Entebbe, refueled and left for Sudan about 5 p.m. Saturday. As it was approaching New Site about 6:30 p.m., the pilot sent word to the authorities that bad weather had made a landing there impossible. The pilot apparently indicated that he would find another place to land.

The authorities then lost contact with the helicopter. Its wreckage was found Sunday strewn over a hillside near New Site.

A local religious leader, Paride Taban, said he had spoken to villagers who saw the helicopter in the sky that night and later saw flames. He said he was convinced that the crash had been caused by the storm.

"They said they saw a helicopter coming," he said. "It was hovering, and there was rain and clouds. After the light disappeared, a flame came up. That was the end."

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