South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar held talks with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on Sunday as a deadline passed to end months of civil war in the South.
Machar is on his first visit to Khartoum since December when his forces and those loyal to President Salva Kiir began the war which three ceasefires have failed to end.
There has been growing international condemnation of the fighting which has killed thousands of people and uprooted more than 1.5 million.
During the 1983-2005 Sudanese civil war which led to South Sudan’s independence three years ago, Machar fought at varying times for both pro-independence rebels and for Sudan’s government in Khartoum.
“We have a long history together,” Machar said after briefing Bashir about peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, led by the East African regional block IGAD.
“There are some problems in the negotiations,” he told reporters, citing disagreements over whether talks should occur directly with the government or involve broader representation.
“We want to solve the issues that led to the conflict and after that we want to have a transitional government, during which we can write a transitional constitution,” Machar said.
“President Bashir can help with this because he has experience when he was president of greater Sudan.”
An IGAD deadline for rebel and government forces to agree on a power-sharing deal and implement a ceasefire expired on Sunday.
Machar said his visit to Khartoum follows trips to other IGAD member nations, Djibouti and Kenya. In May, he held talks in Nairobi with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Neither Bashir, nor any other Sudanese official, joined Machar to brief reporters after the talks.
But the official SUNA news agency said Bashir, who met Machar at the presidential guesthouse, called for an end to the war “and commitment to dialogue” for solving the crisis.
On Saturday, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry, which is hosting and helping to mediate the negotiations, announced the launch of peace talks once again.
Despite the South’s separation, Khartoum and Juba have common interests, most notably oil, Kau Nak, charge d’affaires at the South’s embassy in Khartoum, said ahead of Machar’s visit.
He told AFP that if Machar were visiting “for good of South Sudan or good of [the] two countries then that would be all right”.
South Sudan pays fees to Khartoum for the export of southern oil through Sudanese pipelines, although output is down since fighting began.
The United States special envoy Donald Booth said in May that South Sudan’s crude production had dropped nearly 50% since December, sapping both impoverished countries of vital revenue.
“This visit is important for peace and stability in South Sudan,” which would also benefit Sudan, Khartoum’s Foreign Minister Ali Karti said last week, when Machar was originally expected to visit.
Karti stressed that Sudan has no interest “in continuation of the war in South Sudan and supporting one party against the other”, SUNA said.
Analyst Magdi El Gizouli told AFP that Machar wants pressure on Kiir, “and Khartoum is in a position to do that”.
But he said Khartoum is not interested in one party to the conflict winning an outright victory.
“Any strong administration in South Sudan, in any form, would be a risk,” particularly ahead of the expiry in 2016 of the existing agreement governing fees paid by the South for the export of its oil, said Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute.
Almost 89 000 refugees from South Sudan have fled north over the border because of fighting in the South, the United Nations says.
Machar’s delegation said he would leave Sudan on Monday after meeting Vice-President Bakri Hassan Saleh and political party representatives.
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