May 29, 2012 / 6:24 PM / 6 years ago

UPDATE 1-Sudans restart talks amid bombing accusations

* Sudans at loggerheads since southern secession

* Diplomat pessimistic over speedy settlement (Recasts with Sudan statement, reported Abyei withdrawal)

By Aaron Maasho and Hereward Holland

ADDIS ABABA/JUBA, May 29 (Reuters) - Sudan said it had pulled its troops out of a disputed border territory and was ready to open a new page in its relations with neighbour South Sudan as the two countries re-started talks on Tuesday on avoiding a collapse into all-out war.

But any hopes of a speedy settlement between the old foes were overshadowed by southern accusations that Sudan had also launched fresh bombing raids on its territory hours before the negotiations started.

Neither the reported bombing raids nor the Sudanese withdrawal from Abyei could be confirmed independently.

Senior officials from Sudan and newly-independent South Sudan sat down in Addis Ababa on Tuesday to hold their first direct negotiations since a series of clashes broke out along their disputed border in April, raising fears of a return to war.

South Sudan split away from Sudan in July last year after decades of conflict without settling a string of bitter disputes over the position of their shared border, oil transit fees, the ownership of disputed territories and other issues.

Both countries’ oil-dependent economies have also suffered since the split. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday said Sudan’s economy faced “daunting” challenges and needed to bring in emergency measures to stabilise it.

Years of tortuous negotiations and international pressure have done little to wipe out the deep distrust between the two sides.

One Western diplomat told Reuters there was little hope of a quick, comprehensive settlement to the countries’ many disputes.

“The main thing is that you are talking again, but expectations are very low ... At best, they will discuss a roadmap,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

BOMBING ACCUSATION

As officials gathered for the discussions in Ethiopia, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, information minister for newly-independent South Sudan, told reporters Sudanese war planes had continued bombing raids that started over the weekend.

“Today the Sudan armed forces are still bombing in Warguet area (Northern Bahr el Ghazal),” he said in the southern capital Juba.

“Maybe they want to negotiate from a position of strength as they usually do. This is not the first time they have done it.”

Sudan’s army spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid was not immediately available to comment, but the government routinely denies bombing the South.

Past negotiations between Sudan and fighters in other parts of the country - including its western Darfur region - have often been marked by reports of last minute fighting, as the sides try to maximise territorial gains.

Sudanese state-linked media said Khartoum had completed a previously-promised withdrawal from the disputed region of Abyei, which it seized a year ago after an attack on a convoy blamed by the United Nations on southern troops.

Abyei, which has rich pasturelands, is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan and was a flashpoint for past clashes.

The state-linked Sudanese Media Centre said Sudan had handed over facilities to U.N. peacekeepers in Abyei. The Ethiopian peacekeeping force could not immediately reached for comment but one U.N. source said Sudanese troops seemed to have left.

The northern country’s delegation to Addis Ababa struck a conciliatory note on the talks, saying it hoped to “open a new page” in relations with the South.

“The delegation in Addis Ababa will make every effort to make this round of negotiations fruitful,” the delegation said in a statement carried by state news agency SUNA.

Both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table in Ethiopia after the U.N. Security Council threatened the two with sanctions if they did not stop fighting and resume talks.

Sudan has said it wants to make security a priority and accuses Juba of supporting rebels in Sudan’s borderlands. South Sudan denies the claims.

South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted to split away from the north in a referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the two sides. About 2 million people died in that conflict, fought over ideology, religion, ethnicity and oil. (Reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa and Hereward Holland in Juba; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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