JUBA, Oct 22 – Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in South Sudan Tuesday, as pressure mounts over the contested flashpoint enclave of Abyei and other bitter issues left unresolved since the countries split two years ago.
Bashir, an indicted war crimes suspect wanted by the International Criminal Court, was met at the airport in Juba by his southern counterpart Salva Kiir, with the former arch-enemies shaking hands and then embracing.
“The meeting is about building relationships between our countries, to strengthen our ties,” South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters as the presidents left for closed door meetings.
A military guard of honour stood to attention as Bashir arrived, made up of former rebel fighters he once battled during the two-decade civil war that led to South Sudan’s independence.
A referendum for Abyei, wedged between the two countries and claimed by both sides, has been repeatedly stalled, with residents now saying they will organise their own vote to determine their fate.
The United Nations has previously warned that any such unilateral move would risk inflaming tensions in the war-damaged and oil producing zone, and which could destabilise the uneasy peace between the old foes in Khartoum and Juba.
“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 former united nation.
Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti, in a statement on Khartoum’s state news agency SUNA, said the talks would “stave off the fear” that the issue of Abyei would endanger the “improving relations between the two countries”.
Trade, security and oil issues would also be discussed by the presidents in the one-day visit, Karti added.
More than 50 Sudanese officials including senior ministers and businessmen accompanied Bashir.
Bashir and Kiir last met in talks in Khartoum last month.
Abyei was meant to vote on whether it lies in 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.