Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir said he would support an independent South Sudan during a rare trip to the region on Tuesday, five days ahead of a high-stakes referendum on independence that he had previously vowed to oppose.
AFP - On a rare visit to Juba on Tuesday, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir told southerners he would celebrate the result of Sunday's referendum on southern independence, "even if you choose secession."
"I personally will be sad if Sudan splits. But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides," Bashir said in a speech to senior southern officials broadcast live on state television.
"I am going to celebrate your decision, even if your decision is secession."
He had earlier been greeted by southern leader Salva Kiir on his arrival at Juba airport, where he was given a red carpet welcome by senior southern politicians, religious leaders and a guard of honour from the combined armed forces of north and south Sudan.
Around 500 people gathered outside the airport, shouting slogans for separation such as "no to unity," and waving southern flags, but the atmosphere was festive.
In his speech, Bashir said unity was the best choice for the southerners, but he also insisted he wanted good relations with the south if it chooses independence, and repeated his message that the links between north and south Sudan were unique.
"Anything you need in terms of technical, logistical or professional support from Khartoum, you will find us ready to give it," he said.
"The benefit we get from unity, we can also get it from two separate states."
A heavy security presence was deployed in Juba, where armed soldiers were seen patrolling the streets.
"We will give him a warm welcome," said southern information minister Barnaba Marial said ahead of Bashir's arrival.
"His recent conciliatory statements have pleased a lot of people. We have asked our public to be courteous, welcoming and kind, because there is no competition here," Marial told reporters in Juba.
The Sudanese president last week pledged to help build a secure, stable and "brotherly" state in the south if it votes for independence, in a speech delivered in northern Gezira state.
More than 3.5 million southerners are registered to participate in the referendum, which will give them the chance to vote on whether to remain united with the north or secede. Voting is due to start on Sunday and last for a week.
The referendum is a key plank of the 2005 north-south peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war in which some two million people were killed and another four million displaced.
The US State Department said on Monday that it was "optimistic" about the staging of the referendum this weekend.
"We believe the right signals are being sent both in the north and south in terms of the upcoming referendum and respecting the results," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
Posters erected by non-governmental civil society groups at the entrance to Juba airport on Tuesday served as a reminder to Bashir of the expected outcome of the referendum.
"We welcome you back to celebrate the independence of south Sudan," read one. "Welcome to the 193rd (world) state," ran another.
Date created : 2011-01-04