President visits South Sudan before vote

2011-01-04 10:58

Sudan’s president came to the southern capital of Juba for talks today, five days before residents in the oil-rich south are widely expected to vote for independence from the north.

President Omar al-Bashir is expected to discuss several issues with southern Sudanese leaders, including the status of the disputed border region of Abyei.

The weeklong independence referendum, which begins on Sunday, is the result of a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war between the mainly Christian south and the mainly Muslim north.

Some 2 million people died in the conflict.

Hundreds of pro-independence demonstrators waited outside the airport, chanting and waving placards.

One read “Welcome to the 193rd country”, referring to Southern Sudan’s hopes to become the world’s newest nation.

Al-Bashir arrived in a suit but donned traditional southern robes when he descended from the plane.

An honour guard of troops and a marching band serenaded him as he was welcomed by Southern Sudanese Vice-President Salva Kiir.

South Sudan’s Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said that southerners should welcome the president’s visit after al-Bashir said earlier this week that he would be the first to recognise an independent south.

Election observers have said they hope the polls will be peaceful, but independent militias might threaten to cause disturbances in some areas.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said today that Beijing was sending observers to Southern Sudan for the vote.

China’s interest in Africa’s largest country is high and it has been seeking strong relations with officials in both Sudan’s north and south ahead of the vote.

Sudan is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer.

Diplomats have said that if the south votes for independence, both sides must work out a way to prevent conflict.

Southern Sudan had most of the nation’s oil, but most of the infrastructure – including a pipeline that went to a port – was in the country’s north.

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