KHARTOUM: The leaders of Egypt and Libya were in Khartoum Tuesday for talks with Sudanese leaders on the future of Africa’s largest country ahead of a referendum that’s likely to break it into two.
The talks come less than three weeks before a Jan. 9 vote in the mainly animist and Christian south of Sudan on whether the region should secede. The referendum is required under a 2005 peace accord that ended more than 20 years of civil war that left nearly 2 million people dead and the southerners scarred and suspicious of Khartoum’s Muslim Arab rulers.
Sudanese presidential spokesman Emad Sid Ahmed told reporters in Khartoum that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi were to meet with Sudan’s President Omar Al-Beshir and southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir.
Both leaders arrived in Khartoum in mid-afternoon, with Mubarak landing about 20 minutes after Qaddafi.
The aim of the talks in Khartoum is to "discuss ways to help the Sudanese partners reach agreement on outstanding issues which prevent the full realization" of their 2005 peace accord, Egypt’s official MENA news agency said.
Egypt says the Khartoum talks are designed to ensure that the referendum is held in a "climate of freedom, transparency and credibility" and that the four leaders would review some of the outstanding issues between the two Sudanese sides, such as the demarcation of the border and the future of the oil-rich area of Abyei on the border between north and south Sudan.
Both Libya and Egypt view Sudan as their strategic backyard and would want to see the breakup of their southern neighbor to be peaceful and avoid any massive flow of refugees into their territory as a result of renewal of fighting.
Analysts predict that southern voters will opt for independence, and even senior northern officials are beginning to accept the idea of Africa’s largest nation being partitioned.
The two sides have been discussing since July the issues of future citizenship arrangements, the sharing out of natural resources — particularly oil — security and compliance with international accords, notably on water allocation from the Nile.
An internal UN document says the world body is planning for the possibility that 2.8 million people would be displaced in Sudan if hostilities break out over the referendum.
The document, obtained by The Associated Press, warns that a "deterioration of the North-South relationship, as well as tensions within northern and southern Sudan could lead to large-scale outflow of people to neighboring countries."
Both militaries have reinforced their positions along the border in recent months, hindering aid work, the report said. If either the north or the south doesn’t accept the results of the referendum, the result could be a "war-like" situation, it said.
While Libya sees Sudan as a vital piece of its Africa-focused foreign policy, there is much more at stake there for Egypt, the most populous Arab nation.
Sudan lies astride the middle reaches of the Nile, the primary source of water for mainly desert Egypt. The White Nile, one of the river’s two main tributaries, runs through south Sudan.
Egypt fears an independent south Sudan may come under the influence of rival Nile basin nations like Ethiopia that have been complaining Egypt uses more than its fair share of the river’s water.
"Guaranteeing our water needs and safeguarding our Nile resources are a central component of our vision for the future," Mubarak said in a nationally televised speech this week.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir (R) welcomes Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (2nd L) at Khartoum airport upon his arrival with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (not in picture) on Dec. 21. (AFP Photo/Ashraf Shazly)