ADDIS ABABA // Sudan and South Sudan's leaders negotiated positions yesterday as international pressure mounts to end long-running disputes that have brought the former civil war foes to the brink of renewed conflict.
The rival delegations have held drawn-out talks that began several months before South Sudan split in July last year from what was Africa's biggest nation, following a landslide independence vote after decades of war.
Among issues on the table are understood to be ownership of contested regions along their frontier - especially the flashpoint Abyei region - and the setting up of a demilitarised border zone after bloody clashes.
The buffer zone would also potentially cut support for rebel forces in Sudan's Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions, where Sudan accuses Juba of supplying former civil war comrades whom Khartoum now seeks to wipe out.
Multiple rounds of talks have failed to find solutions, but both sides have said they are now optimistic, given the looming threat of UN Security Council sanctions and the fact the two presidents were due to meet. "We are still facing difficulties ... but we are hopeful we can reach a deal," said Atif Kiir, spokesman for South Sudan's delegation to the African Union mediated talks in the Ethiopian capital.
"The summit is to reach a comprehensive agreement between the two countries, so let us hope," his Sudanese counterpart Badr El Din Abdullah said late on Saturday, when negotiations stretched into the night.
A UN deadline passed on Saturday for the Sudanese president, Omar Al Bashir, and his Southern counterpart, Salva Kiir, to settle the raft of issues unresolved when the South became the world's newest nation last year.
The deadline was set after brutal border clashes broke out in March, when Southern troops and tanks briefly wrested the valuable Heglig oil field from Khartoum's control, and Sudan launched bombing raids in response. The UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, has called on the leaders to tackle their remaining differences, "so that their summit concludes with a success that marks an end to the era of conflict".
Mr Al Bashir, who arrived yesterday morning, first held talks with the new Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, before heading to meet with his delegation. "The proposals are on the table, they are going to deal with the issues," the Ethiopian state minister of foreign affairs, Berhane Gebre-Christos, said. "We are hopeful of a deal."
A meeting with his counterpart Kiir was expected late yesterday evening, according to South Sudanese officials, as negotiators were busy shuttling between the teams to narrow positions.
"A short delay means nothing ... both sides are working hard to settle demands ahead of the meeting," a diplomat said.
For once, the mood in these long-running talks appeared largely positive, with both Khartoum and Juba apparently keen to end conflict and a stalemate over stalled oil production that is crippling both their economies.
The chief mediator, Thabo Mbeki, former South Africa president, was seen shuttling between multiple delegations addressing issues of security, border demarcation, oil and finance.
At independence, Juba took with it two-thirds of the region's oil, but processing and export facilities remained in Sudan. In January, the South shut off oil production after accusing Sudan of stealing its oil.