Khartoum - South Sudan on Thursday invited its “brother”, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, to an April summit to resolve outstanding issues that have pushed the two countries to the brink of war.
“We delivered the message to President Bashir and he welcomed it. He expressed his readiness to visit Juba,” the south's top negotiator, Pagan Amum, said in a statement to reporters at the cabinet offices in Sudan's capital.
Amum, who arrived with a delegation of ministers, said South Sudan President Salva Kiir had invited his “brother president” to the April 3 summit “with the aim of solving the pending issues between the two states”.
It would be Bashir's first visit to the south since it separated last year following a referendum.
After months of failed negotiations, a dispute over oil fees and mutual accusations of backing rebels on each other's territory, Amum last week said relations had turned positive after the latest African Union-led talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
At those meetings, the two sides reached agreements on safeguarding the status of each other's citizens and demarcating the oil-rich border.
When South Sudan gained its independence it took about three-quarters of Sudanese oil production with it, but it has no facilities to export the crude.
At the heart of their dispute has been disagreement over how much Juba should pay to use the northern pipeline and port.
The new nation shut crude production in late January after accusing Sudan of “stealing” its oil.
But Amum said last week that Sudan has agreed to pay for the oil it had taken, while South Sudan would hand over months of unpaid transit fees, although further negotiations were still needed.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that the crisis between Sudan and South Sudan was a major threat to regional peace and security.
Tensions peaked in late February and early March when Khartoum threatened retaliation after accusing the south of backing a rebel attack in the disputed border area of Jau.
Air strikes followed on an oil field in the south's Unity State, an attack Juba blamed on Khartoum's forces.
“They really came to the brink of war... but they realised that the international community would not support them,” an analyst told reporters.
However, some friction remains.
On the eve of the South Sudanese visit, Mohammed Atta, the head of Sudan's intelligence service, alleged that rebels supported by South Sudan attacked the oil centre of Heglig in South Kordofan state.
He was quoted by the Sudan Media Centre, which is close to the security apparatus.
“I think it's propaganda,” responded Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), which has been battling government troops for several months in South Kordofan. “Nobody told me we have an operation going on.”
Lodi said Sudanese Antonov and MiG aircraft bombed the rebel-held town of Kauda on Thursday but the ordnance fell on empty land and only killed a cow.
“Only it created fear among the civilians,” he said.
Sudan's army spokesperson could not be reached.
The UN's Ban welcomed the planned summit and said the agreements on borders and citizenship were “an important step forward and an encouraging manifestation of both parties' spirit of co-operation and partnership”.
Amum spoke in Khartoum before the two delegations headed into meetings aimed largely at preparation for the summit. - Sapa-AFP