The leaders of Sudan and South Sudan have met amid pressure to strike a deal on the disputed Abyei region and other issues left unresolved since South Sudan won independence.
Omar Bashir and Salva Kiir met on Tuesday in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, which seceded from the north in 2011 after a referendum and a peace agreement that followed a two-decade civil war between the two sides.
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.
Bashir said the meeting was “fruitful”, adding that both leaders will “make sure all the outstanding issues are implemented”.
“We are ready to go the extra mile to make peace with Sudan,” Kiir said.
Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the South Sudan foreign minister, said the meeting was about “building relationships between our countries and to strengthen our ties”.
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.
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 longtime 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”.
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.
Some are pessimistic about 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”.
“Both governments have important constituencies that they need to pacify, making the issue very difficult to solve,” the diplomat said.
Senior leaders of the Ngok Dinka said last week they would organise and run their own referendum, saying international efforts had stalled and there was “no light at the end of the tunnel”.