Thursday, March 22, 2012

S. Sudan invites 'brother' Bashir to summit

South Sudan on Thursday formally invited its "brother", Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, to a summit in April aimed at resolving outstanding issues which have pushed them to the brink of war.

"We delivered the message to President Bashir and he welcomed it. He expressed his readiness to visit Juba," the South's top negotiator, Pagan Amum, said in a statement to reporters at the cabinet offices in Sudan's capital.

Amum, who arrived with a delegation of ministers, said the South's leader Salva Kiir had invited his "brother president" to the April 3 summit "with the aim of solving the pending issues between the two states."

It would be Bashir's first visit to the South since it separated in July last year following an overwhelming vote at the end of Africa's longest war.

After months of failed negotiations, a dispute over oil fees, and mutual accusations of backing rebels on each other's territory, Amum last week said relations had turned positive after the latest African Union-led talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

At those meetings the two sides reached agreements on safeguarding the status of each other's citizens and demarcating the oil-rich border.

When South Sudan gained its independence it took about three-quarters of Sudanese oil production but it has no facilities of its own to export the crude.

At the heart of their dispute has been disagreement over how much Juba should pay to use the northern pipeline and port.

The new nation shut crude production in late January after accusing Sudan of "stealing" its oil.

But Amum said last week that Sudan has agreed to pay back oil it had taken, while South Sudan would hand over months of unpaid transit fees, although further negotiations were still needed.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had warned the crisis between Sudan and South Sudan was a major threat to regional peace and security.

Tensions peaked in late February and early March when Khartoum threatened retaliation after accusing the South of backing a rebel attack in the disputed border area of Jau.

Air strikes followed on an oil field in the South's Unity State, an attack Juba blamed on Khartoum's forces.

"They really came to the brink of war... but they realised that the international community would not support them," an analyst who asked not to be named told AFP.

Some friction, however, remains.

On the eve of the South Sudanese visit Mohammed Atta, the head of Sudan's intelligence service, alleged rebels supported by South Sudan attacked the oil centre of Heglig in South Kordofan state.

He was quoted by the Sudan Media Centre, which is close to the security apparatus.

"I think it's propaganda," responded Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). "Nobody told me we have an operation going on."

The UN's Ban welcomed the planned summit and said the agreements on borders and citizenship were "an important step forward and an encouraging manifestation of both parties' spirit of cooperation and partnership."

Amum spoke in Khartoum before the two delegations headed into meetings aimed largely at preparation for the summit.

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