KHARTOUM (Reuters) - North and south Sudan’s defence chiefs on Thursday vowed there would be no return to war in a rare joint statement that set out to defuse tensions in the countdown to a referendum on southern secession.
Both sides have accused each other of building up arms and massing troops on their shared border with less than two months to go before a vote on whether the oil-producing south should declare independence or stay part of Sudan.
Last week, the southern army accused northern soldiers of ambushing its troops in the south’s Upper Nile state, warning the attack could reignite civil war in Africa’s largest country.
The north’s army denied launching the assault or doing anything to breach the 2005 peace deal that promised southerners the referendum and ended north-south fighting that has plagued Sudan on and off for decades.
On Thursday, the south’s minister for the SPLA (the southern army) Nhial Deng Nhial appeared at a joint news conference with Sudan’s national, Khartoum-based, Minister of Defence Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein.
“We wanted to send a message to our citizens, both in the north and south, that there will be no return to war. Regardless of the amount of differences they will be resolved through political dialogue. There will be no return to war,” Nhial told reporters.
Leading northerners and southerners have promised peace in the past, but the televised footage of both men speaking next to each other in Khartoum’s plush Ministry of Defence headquarters had its own significance.
Nhial said the reported attack in Upper Nile state on October 31 was still under investigation and declined to comment further.
Hussein added he thought the bitter north-south dispute over the ownership of the central, oil-producing Abyei region could also be solved through political dialogue but again did not go into details.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement set up a semi- autonomous government in the underdeveloped south, allowed the south to keep its own army and promised southerners the referendum, scheduled for January 9 2011.
Both sides remain at loggerheads over a string of issues, including the position of their shared border and how they would share out oil revenues and national debt after a widely expected southern vote for secession.
Sudan’s north-south war, Africa’s longest civil conflict, was fuelled by differences over oil, religion, ethnicity and ideology. It claimed an estimated 2 million lives, forced 4 million to flee and destabilised much of east Africa.