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
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
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
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
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
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
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