Addis Ababa: The rival presidents of Sudan and South Sudan agreed Saturday to abide by timelines to be drawn up to implement a raft of security, oil and border deals stalled for over three months, mediators said.
With the two neighbours increasingly cash-strapped after a spat led Juba to shut down its oil output a year ago, the announcement offered fresh hope of a breakthrough in long-running talks to end the crisis.
African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki said at the end of a summit meeting in the Ethiopian capital that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his Southern counterpart Salva Kiir had recommitted to the key deals and agreed to enact them “unconditionally”.
“Our panel is preparing a matrix for the implementation of all of the existing agreements with timeframes,” said Mbeki, a former South African president, adding that the AU would complete the timelines by January 13.
The deals, which were signed in September but were never implemented, include the restarting of Southern oil exports through northern pipelines, as well as the reopening of border points for general trade.
They also included the withdrawal of troops back from contested border regions to create a demilitarised buffer zone hoped to ease tensions between the two armies, who came close to all out war in March and April 2012.
The summit of the leaders, whose nations are both struggling with economic austerity cuts following Juba’s halting of oil exports through Sudan following a dispute over fees, was the latest of repeated rounds of AU-mediated talks.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who hosted and helped mediate the talks, said he was “very much satisfied” with the progress of the meeting.
“I am very happy that the bottlenecks are now released and the implementation can resume,” he told reporters.
Tensions have been high between former civil war foes Bashir and Kiir after the latest in a string of accusations that Khartoum had bombed South Sudan.
However, they were seen to smile and shake hands after their meeting on Saturday alongside Mbeki and Hailemariam. The presidents did not themselves speak to reporters.
Bashir and Kiir arrived in Ethiopia on Friday, one day after South Sudan accused Khartoum of waging fresh attacks along their disputed border, but they first met separately only with mediators.
Juba’s chief negotiator Pagan Amum called the alleged ground attacks and aerial bombardment on Wednesday in South Sudan’s border regions “unfortunate”, and said the mood at the talks had been hampered.
Ahead of the talks the United States, Britain and Norway had issued a joint statement urging implementation of the deals, and calling for the armies of both nations to “immediately withdraw” from their frontier.
The resumption of oil production would be “particularly valuable for both economies and should not be held up by negotiation on other issues”, they added.
However, no major breakthrough was struck on the key agenda item of the contested Abyei region, a long-time flashpoint on the volatile border and one of the most contentious sticking points between the two nations.
Sudanese troops withdrew from the territory in May after a year-long occupation that forced over 100,000 people to flee towards South Sudan.
The Lebanon-sized area — where a referendum to decide its future due in January 2011 never took place — is now controlled by United Nations peacekeepers from Ethiopia.
South Sudan separated from Sudan in July 2011 under a peace agreement that ended a 1983-2005 civil war, but key issues including the demarcation of border zones that cut through oil-rich regions remain unresolved.
Khartoum also accuses South Sudan of supporting rebels operating in Sudan, which has been a major obstacle to implementing the agreements.
The South, in turn, says Sudan backs insurgents on its territory, a tactic it used to deadly effect during the two decades of civil war.