South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on Saturday lead the first top-level delegation to Khartoum since southern secession, with key unresolved issues on the agenda, including oil and borders.
These and the ongoing conflict in Sudan’s border region between the army and rebel militiamen with historic ties to the south have heavily strained north-south relations.
But after one-to-one talks on Saturday, both presidents pledged to work together for peace and stability, and to put the years of conflict behind them.
“We achieved the comprehensive peace agreement [in 2005] through joint efforts. By the same good will, we will not go back to war,” Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir said in a speech.
“The pending issues are not too difficult to resolve if the political will is there. We appreciate the initiative of your visit, which has assured us of this political will,” he added.
South Sudan proclaimed formal independence from the north on July 9, after more than two decades of devastating civil war, a conflict fuelled by religion, ethnicity, ideology and resources such as oil, that left the south in ruins.
Negotiations to regulate Sudan’s political and economic division, both prior to and since partition, have made only limited progress.
Joint committees on security, economy, borders and Abyei held closed meetings ahead of talks between the two leaders, but it was not clear whether any new accords were reached.
Kiir is accompanied by South Sudan’s minister of Cabinet affairs, Deng Alor, as well as the oil, finance, national security and foreign ministers.
“We are privileged by the warm reception that we received,” he said.
“We are here to visit whatever problems that have not been resolved … We on our side we will not let you down,” Kiir added.
Diplomats in Khartoum say they are doubtful about the likelihood of any landmark agreements, instead viewing the two-day visit as a confidence-building exercise that could lead to meaningful negotiations in the coming weeks.
Others hope that a breakthrough can be made especially on oil, most of which is produced in the south, and possibly on the future status of Abyei, which was occupied by the Sudanese army in May.
Bashir, who attended the independence ceremony in Juba as a guest of honour, said last week that South Sudan was a “top priority” for the Khartoum government.
On Saturday, he promised to keep Sudan’s ports open to the South for imports and exports “according to international standards”, and to work with the south to secure their shared borders.
But despite such pledges of future cooperation, neither side has so far shown any intention of making serious compromises on any of the key outstanding issues since partition.
In addition to Abyei and oil, these include border demarcation and debt.
The lack of progress has aggravated the lingering mistrust between Khartoum and Juba, occasionally triggering pointed accusations by senior officials.
Sudan’s failure to withdraw its troops from the bitterly disputed Abyei border region by September 30, as agreed, prompted a senior South Sudanese official to charge that Khartoum had no intention of doing so and was blocking the return of displaced southerners on purpose.
Separately, disagreement over how much Juba should pay to use the north’s oil infrastructure has resulted in Khartoum blocking southern oil exports twice since July.
Further clouding the atmosphere has been the spread of violence in Sudan’s border region, where Khartoum has accused Juba of supplying rebels, claims strongly rejected by the South.
Fighting in South Kordofan, where Nuba militiamen who once fought alongside the ex-southern rebels have been battling the Sudanese army since June, last month spilled into Blue Nile state, which also has strong political ties to the south.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday that the clashes in Blue Nile had caused more than 27 500 people to flee to Ethiopia and South Sudan in the past month.
It said it had opened a new refugee camp in western Ethiopia to cope with the influx, after the other main camp in the area, at Sherkole, reached its full capacity of 8 700 people. — AFP