BEIJING, June 16 (Reuters) - China said on Thursday that it would welcome Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir for an official visit in late June, praising ties with one of its largest trading partners in Africa, weeks before it is to be split into two nations.
The visit, scheduled for June 27-30, comes as the government in northern Sudan prepares for the July 9 separation of the country along its north-south border, the outcome of a referendum held earlier in the year.
Bashir and his government in Khartoum — Beijing’s long-time ally — stand to lose about a third of the country’s territory and up to three quarters of its oil reserves when the south leaves.
“The two countries, accepting the new situation, will discuss how to advance and consolidate our traditional friendship, expand and deepen comprehensive cooperation and exchange views on the North-South peace process and Darfur issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
Bashir will no doubt welcome the visit with his close and powerful ally as the northern Sudanese army has been clashing with armed groups aligned with south Sudan in Southern Kordofan — a northern, oil-producing state that surrounds the disputed Abyei region on the border.
“China and Sudan possess a deep and profound friendship. With more than a half century of stable and healthy development since establishing relations, pragmatic cooperation has yielded plentiful achievements,” Hong told reporters during a regular news briefing.
“Bilateral trade is rising. Sudan has already become China’s third largest trade partner in Africa with cooperation in each sphere consistently developing,” he said.
Chinese companies are major investors in Sudan’s oil, and China is Khartoum’s top arms supplier, something long criticised by human rights activists and Western governments, especially because of the conflict in the Darfur region.
But China, sensitive to criticism about its role in Sudan, has sent peacekeepers to Darfur and appointed its own special representative to the region to try and bring peace there.
Bashir, who faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes in Darfur, will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders during the visit.
“Especially in recent years, the countries have maintained contact at all levels and political trust has unceasingly strengthened,” Hong said.
China has called for a peaceful resolution to the border clashes. (Reporting by Michael Martina and Sabrina Mao; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)