, KHARTOUM, Feb 8 – Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno paid a "historic" visit on Monday to Khartoum, in a bid to seal a thaw in ties and boost efforts to bring peace to Sudan\’s war-torn Darfur region.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir greeted Deby at Khartoum airport on the start of a visit expected to help seal last month\’s accord normalising ties which are essential to peace in Darfur.
"This is a historic visit," Sudan\’s Foreign Minister Deng Alor told reporters at the airport.
"I think it is going to promote relations between the two countries. We have been trying to improve relations between Chad and Sudan. I think this visit is a testimony to what we have been doing and we hope to see a lot of issues being discussed and resolved," he added.
Chad has long accused Sudan of supporting rebels seeking to oust the government, while Khartoum has charged Ndjamena with backing ethnic minority rebels in the western region of Darfur.
But the two neighbours also agreed in mid-January to deploy a joint force on their border, in a move aimed at ending the presence of rebels on each other\’s territory and stemming their activity, as part of normalisation efforts.
Chad and Sudan had in the past signed similar agreements but these accords were never implemented.
"This time it seems serious. They both need it right now," a diplomat told AFP last month on condition of anonymity.
"Chad is heading towards legislative elections in November and presidential elections in April 2011, while elections in Sudan are scheduled for April and a referendum (on southern independence) in January 2011," the diplomat said.
Announcing plans to visit Khartoum last week, Deby said: "I am a man of dialogue and openness. War has never settled things… Chad wants to live in perfect harmony with all its neighbours."
Improved ties between the two countries is seen as a major step towards peace in Darfur, where the United Nations says about 300,000 people have died since ethnic rebels revolted in 2003. Khartoum says 10,000 were killed.
The two countries broke off diplomatic relations for several months in 2008 after a surprise rebel attack on Ndjamena which came close to overthrowing Deby before government forces rallied to rout the insurgents.
Sudan in July complained to the UN Security Council after Chad launched air raids on its territory a few days after another failed rebel offensive on the capital. Chad later admitted it had bombarded rebel rear bases in Darfur.
Deby took power in a military coup in 1990 with Sudan\’s backing, but has since been democratically elected, and eastern Chad currently hosts thousands of Sudanese refugees who fled the civil war in Darfur.
Legal teams from both countries were due to meet also on Monday in Ndjamena to carve out the joint force\’s rules of engagement, while Sudan is expected to lead the first Chadian-Sudanese border unit.
A Sudanese diplomat has said the force should be made up of 3,000 men, with Sudan and Chad each providing 1,500.
The Sudanese foreign minister also expressed hope Deby\’s visit would contribute to progress in indirect talks under way in the Qatari capital, Doha, between the Khartoum government and Darfur rebels.
"This visit is going definitely to have a positive impact on the Doha talks," he said.