KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Ugandan and Sudanese forces were searching for John Garang, the southern rebel leader-turned-vice president who is seen as crucial to Sudan's fledgling peace deal, early today after his helicopter disappeared amid reports it crashed in bad weather in northern Uganda. Garang, who was sworn in as vice president just three weeks ago, left on a flight from Uganda for southern Sudan at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Sudanese and Ugandan officials said. It was not known when the last contact with Garang's craft took place.
The 60-year-old Garang was in a Ugandan military helicopter that crash-landed in bad weather, likely on the Ugandan side of the border, Ugandan authorities said.
From Sudan, there were wildly contradictory reports over the disappearance, although there was no word of foul play.
Sudanese state television reported Sunday night that Garang's craft had landed safely, but Communications Minister Abdel-Basit Sabdarat went on TV hours later to deny the report. "Up to now we do not have any concrete new information about the whereabouts" of Garang's flight, he said.
Garang's absence 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.
Sudanese have celebrated the 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, who earned a doctorate from Iowa State University, is 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.
He was sworn in as vice president on July 9 -- second only to his longtime enemy, President Omar el-Bashir. He and el-Bashir were to work on setting up a power-sharing government and on elevating Garang's rebel troops to an equal status with the Sudanese military.
There is no other leader of Garang's stature in the former rebel movement, the Sudan People's Libaration Army, which he founded and dominated for 21 years. His arrival in Khartoum on July 8 to take the vice president's post brought to the streets millions of southerners and northerners in celebration.
His flight's disappearance brought up the shadows 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.
That genocide took place after months of preparation by Hutu militants -- something that hasn't been taking place in Sudan amid the good feelings over the peace deal.
Ugandan troops and Sudanese military planes were searching for Garang's craft in the remote border region. A Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army operates in the area and has shot down Ugandan military helicopters in the past.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni issued a statement early Monday saying the helicopter was missing in northern Uganda, near the borders with Kenya and Sudan and was believed to have "crash landed" after failing to land in southern Sudan because of bad weather.
The Ugandan military began searching for the lost helicopter early Sunday, but has found no trace of it, the statement said. The Kenyan government also has been asked to join the search.
Garang was returning home from a private visit to Uganda, flying from the capital Kampala to southern Sudan -- a trip that normally takes about two hours -- said Ugandan army spokesman 2nd Capt. Dennis Musitwa.
"What we know is that the aircraft had weather problems and crash-landed," Musitwa told The Associated Press.
Initially, Sudanese television said he left Sunday evening, heading to a former SPLA base called "Newsite" in southern Sudan. Then it aired a report that he had landed safely at a SPLA base in southern Sudan. But Sabdarat denied that report and confirmed that it had left Uganda on Saturday.
"We have not established where they landed. They have not reached where they are supposed to reach, and we are trying to locate them," Sabdarat said.
El-Bashir clearly saw Garang as an important partner in sealing the peace, ensuring the south does not secede, and in repairing Sudan's international reputation. With a speed stunning to many in Sudan, the Sudanese state media went from describing Garang in the darkest terms to respectively calling him "Dr. Garang" after the peace deal was struck.
Mohamed Osman reported on this story from Khartoum, and Tanalee Smith reported from Kassala, Sudan.