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Sudan, S Sudan leaders seek Abyei deal

22 October 2013, 18:32

Juba - Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir met on Tuesday with his southern counterpart Salva Kiir amid pressure to strike a deal on the disputed Abyei region and other issues left unresolved since South Sudan won independence.

Bashir, an indicted war crimes suspect wanted by the International Criminal Court, was welcomed at the airport in Juba by Kiir, with the former arch-enemies first shaking hands and then embracing warmly.

"The meeting is about building relationships between our countries, to strengthen our ties," South Sudan's Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters as the presidents left for closed-door meetings.

As Bashir arrived, a military guard of honour stood to attention, comprising former rebel fighters he once battled during the two-decade civil war that led to South Sudan's independence in July 2011.

The African Union has urged the leaders to "seize the opportunity" towards settling the dispute over war-ravaged Abyei, wedged between the two countries and claimed by both sides.

Abyei was meant to vote on whether to be part of Sudan or South Sudan in January 2011 - the same day as Juba voted overwhelmingly to split from the north - as part of the 2005 peace deal which ended Sudan's civil war.

But a referendum to decide the region's fate has been repeatedly stalled, with residents now saying they will organise their own vote to determine their fate.

People get desperate

The United Nations and AU have warned that any such unilateral move could inflame tensions in the oil-producing zone and risk destabilising the uneasy peace between the long-time foes.

"Abyei is one of the top items on the table," Benjamin said, adding that other issues included opening up border posts to allow traders and residents to cross the new frontier that splits the formerly united nation.

Sudan's Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti, in a statement on state news agency SUNA, said the talks would "stave off the fear" that the dispute over Abyei would endanger the "improving relations between the two countries".

But many are gloomy for a quick resolution.

"I think there isn't a solution in sight for quite a long time," a Western diplomat said, but added there was a need at least to show some progress "otherwise people get desperate".

Abyei, patrolled by some 4 000 Ethiopian-led UN peacekeepers, is home to the settled Ngok Dinka, closely connected to South Sudan, as well the semi-nomadic Arab Misseriya, who traditionally move back and forth from Sudan grazing their cattle.

"Both governments have important constituencies that they need to pacify, making the issue very difficult to solve," the diplomat said.

Bitter oil row

Senior leaders of the Ngok Dinka said last week they will organise and run their own referendum, saying international efforts had stalled and there was "no light at the end of the tunnel".

Trade, security and oil issues are also on the presidents' agenda for the one-day visit, with more than 50 officials including senior ministers and businessmen accompanying Bashir.

Bashir and Kiir met in talks in Sudan last month, while Bashir last visited South Sudan in April, his first visit since independence and which followed a furious row over the shutdown of crucial oil exports as well as bloody border battles last year.

When South Sudan split away, it took with it oil fields accounting for 75% of the reserves - with production totalling some 470 000 barrels per day - that Sudan used to call its own.

The landlocked South complained that Sudan was demanding too much to use its pipelines and port facilities, and the shutdown cost both countries billions of dollars.

Battles along the two nations' un-demarcated border last year involving warplanes and troops then aggravated the situation and raised fears of a return to the level of violence seen in the 1983-2005 civil war.

International pressure eventually reined the two sides back in, with leaders signing a raft of deals, most of which however are yet to be implemented.



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