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Khartoum - Sudan and South Sudan have pulled back troops from their disputed boundary in a first step to establish a demilitarised border zone, the African Union said on Wednesday.
“Both parties have met their obligations with regard to withdrawal to their side of the border,” the AU said on its website after defence ministers from the two countries met in the Ethiopian capital following months of intermittent clashes.
The AU confirmation came after Sudanese Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein told reporters that both sides had pulled troops back, and the first observers are preparing to monitor a buffer zone between the two countries.
The move aims to curb cross-border rebel support but analysts have said both countries will face a major challenge to effectively implement the zone along their undemarcated frontier.
General Yohannes Tesfamariam, commander of a UN peacekeeping force which will also provide observers as well as protection for the monitoring teams, briefed the Addis Ababa meeting on progress, the AU said.
“National monitors are in the process of being airlifted to the Joint Border Verification Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM) headquarters in Kadugli,” it said.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the AU Commission chief, commended the parties for “exceptional efforts they have exerted, to meet the very tight timelines for operationalisation of the Safe Demilitarised Border Zone (SDBZ)”.
“The mechanism we agreed on has begun working,” Hussein told reporters after returning from Addis Ababa on Wednesday.
For the first time, he also said his country was ready to engage in talks with the rebels who have been fighting for almost two years in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Hussein said Sudanese monitors have since Tuesday been in the South Kordofan state capital, Kadugli, which will serve as temporary headquarters for the monitoring teams.
The monitors are to verify the withdrawal of Sudanese and South Sudanese forces from the buffer zone, 10km on each side of a 1956 border line.
At talks in Addis Ababa this month, Sudan and South Sudan finally settled on detailed timetables to ease tensions by implementing the buffer zone and key economic pacts.
The deals had remained dormant after their signing in September as Khartoum pushed for guarantees that South Sudan would no longer back rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).
At the AU-led talks in Addis Ababa, Sudan softened its stance on the security guarantees, helping the buffer zone and eight other agreements to go ahead, observers said.
The two countries have a history of signing pacts with each other but not following through.
South Sudan armed and trained SPLM-N when it was part of the south's rebel force but says it cut military ties before the South's independence in July 2011, following a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Analysts and diplomats say there is no doubt that South Sudan continued to back the rebels.
South Sudan says the north has supported insurgents on its territory, too.
The United Nations and the AU have for months called on the SPLM-N and Khartoum to reach a negotiated settlement.
“We are ready to meet them,” Hussein said in the first such statement by a government official.
But he said talks must occur “under the umbrella” of the CPA which, among other measures, called for a popular consultation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
SPLM-N has reiterated its readiness for direct negotiations with the government. - Sapa-AFP