ADDIS ABABA, Sept 24 – The leaders of Sudan and South Sudan met late Sunday as international pressure grew to end long-running disputes that have brought the former civil war foes to the brink of renewed conflict.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his Southern counterpart Salva Kiir met for almost two hours to kickstart face-to-face talks, following efforts by rival delegations to bring negotiating positions closer.
The drawn-out talks in the Ethiopian capital began several months before South Sudan split in July 2011 from what was Africa’s biggest nation, following a landslide independence vote after decades of war.
“There are still differences, but the teams are working to narrow the gap,” said Atif Kiir, spokesman for South Sudan’s delegation to the African Union-mediated talks. “We are still hopeful of a deal,” he added.
Bashir and Kiir broke around midnight — and were seen chatting together apparently amicably after their meeting — with talks slated to resume Monday morning, possibly mediated by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
“There are some differences… but all the issues are on the table, and they (the presidents) will deal with them,” his Sudanese counterpart Badr el-din Abdullah told reporters, adding security issues remained a sticking point.
Key issues include the ownership of contested regions along their frontier — especially the flashpoint Abyei region — and the setting up of a demilitarised border zone after bloody clashes.
The buffer zone would also potentially cut support for rebel forces in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions, where Sudan accuses Juba of supplying former civil war comrades whom Khartoum now seeks to wipe out.
Multiple rounds of talks have failed to find solutions, but both sides have said they are now optimistic, given the looming threat of UN Security Council sanctions and the signal of commitment with the leaders meeting.
A UN deadline passed Saturday for the two presidents to settle the raft of issues left unresolved when the South became the world’s newest nation last year.
The deadline was set after brutal border clashes broke out in March, when Southern troops and tanks briefly wrested the valuable Heglig oil field from Khartoum’s control, and Sudan launched bombing raids in response.