The presidents of Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to abide by timelines to be drawn up to implement a raft of security, oil and border deals stalled for over three months, mediators said.
With the two neighbours increasingly cash-strapped after a spat led Juba to shut down its oil output a year ago, the announcement on Saturday offered fresh hope of a breakthrough in long-running talks to end the crisis.
The leaders also agreed to set up a long-delayed demilitarised zone along their disputed border as soon as possible, a condition for the resumption of oil exports.
African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki said at the end of a summit meeting in the Ethiopian capital that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his South Sudanese counterpart Salva Kiir had recommitted to the key deals and agreed to enact them “unconditionally”.
“Our panel is preparing a matrix for the implementation of all of the existing agreements with timeframes,” said Mbeki, a former South African president, adding that the AU would complete the timelines by January 13.
The deals, which were signed in September but were never implemented, include the restarting of Southern oil exports through northern pipelines, as well as the reopening of border points for general trade.
They also included the withdrawal of troops back from contested border regions to create a demilitarised buffer zone hoped to ease tensions between the two armies, who came close to all-out war in March and April 2012.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who hosted and helped mediate the talks, said he was “very much satisfied” with the progress of the meeting.
“I am very happy that the bottlenecks are now released and the implementation can resume,” he told reporters.
On Friday, South Sudan’s chief mediator Pagan Amum accused Sudan of dropping bombs across the border four times this week.
“It is very, definitely, negative. These [air raids] are having a negative impact on the summit and discussion,” Amum told reporters in Addis Ababa.
Juba has accused Khartoum of a series of attacks – regularly dismissed by Sudan.
The US, Britain and Norway issued a joint statement ahead of the talks calling for a settlement, urging the armies of both nations to “immediately withdraw” from their frontier.
Also on the agenda was the contested Abyei region, a long-time flashpoint on the volatile border, which has proved to be one of the most contentious sticking points between the two nations.
Sudanese troops withdrew from the territory in May after a year-long occupation that forced over 100,000 people to flee towards South Sudan.
The Lebanon-sized area – where a referendum to decide its future due in January 2011 never took place – is now controlled by United Nations peacekeepers from Ethiopia.
South Sudan separated from Sudan in July 2011 under a peace agreement that ended a 1983-2005 civil war, but key issues remain unresolved.
Khartoum also accuses South Sudan of supporting rebels operating in Sudan, which has been a major obstacle to implementing the agreements.
The South, in turn, says Sudan backs insurgents on its territory, a tactic it used to deadly effect during the two decades of civil war.