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Sudanese Talks on Abyei Hit Snag

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (R) speaks with African leaders during talks in Addis Ababa, June 12, 2011

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (R) speaks with African leaders during talks in Addis Ababa, June 12, 2011

North-South Sudanese talks in Addis Ababa have hit a snag just as a deal was to be signed on the future of the disputed Abyei region. A second agreement - one that would provide a humanitarian ceasefire in the northern state of South Kordofan - is also on hold.

An eighth day of negotiations ground to a halt Sunday at an Addis Ababa hotel, with the parties said to be hung up over a final few words.

A hoped for signing ceremony Saturday that would have coincided with chief mediator Thabo Mbeki’s 69th birthday failed to materialize. Diplomats close to the negotiations say the former South African president was waiting impatiently Sunday as a second scheduled signing date was also cancelled.

The atmosphere surrounding the talks was glum as members of negotiating teams sat with cell phones glued to their ears, communicating information back and forth with leaders in Khartoum and the southern capital, Juba.

A second deal also hangs in the balance. That one would provide a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire to allow delivery of desperately needed supplies to civilians trapped by an outbreak of fighting in Sudan’s South Kordofan state.

Southern Kordofan will remain north of the border when the South becomes independent July 9. But it is home to approximately 40,000 troops who fought with the south in Sudan’s decades-long civil war. Nearly two weeks of fighting in the border state has raised fears that the 2005 agreement that ended the war may collapse just weeks before the south secedes.

Sources close to the Addis Ababa talks said with the Abyei talks on hold, negotiators are focusing on two other tracks. One track deals with how revenue from oil produced in the south is to be divided, the other on how Sudan’s $38-billion foreign debt would be shared.

The talks began a week ago with meetings between Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Southern leader Salva Kiir. Those talks resulted in what was described as an “agreement in principle” on the demilitarization of Abyei. But that early optimism subsided after the two leaders returned home and left negotiations on the details in the hands of more hardline subordinates.

Former South African president Mbeki is leading a mediation team that includes former Burundian President Pierre Buyoya and former Nigerian president Abdulsalami Abubakar.

The hotel where the talks are being held is just across the road from Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s office. Meles has also been active in trying to ease simmering tensions left over from the days of the civil war that killed an estimated two-million people.