KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudan's leader flew to the nation's south on Tuesday as the region prepares to vote on secession and pledged to respect a division of the country into two new states if that's the choice of the people.
The rare visit by President Omar al Bashir came just five days before what's expected to be an overwhelming vote for separation, fueled by mistrust and resentment after decades of conflict between the two sides.
Bashir made clear that he prefers a united Sudan, but he reaffirmed a vow to recognize a new southern nation if that's the outcome at the polls.
"Whether unity or secession, people should respect it (the results) in good spirit," said Bashir in a speech to southern leaders in new statehouse building in the fledgling southern capital of Juba.
"We agreed that we would keep security and stability," said the Sudanese president of his meeting with southern leader Salva Kiir.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he's "very encouraged" by Bashir's "constructive" remarks but indicated wariness that Bashir, who's been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, would follow through.
Bashir's statement Tuesday and in recent days "are all indicators that this is moving in the right direction, at least today," Kerry told McClatchy in Khartoum.
Kerry, who's planning to stay in the country through the referendum, also cautioned both the government and southern Sudanese leaders not to try to use force to affect the outcome of the referendum.
"Both sides have to live up to certain standards. There can't be support for proxy militias. There can't be underhanded mischief, he said.
This was the Bashir's first trip to the south since national elections in April. Despite a vocal call for unity in Sudan's northern state television, his northern party never attempted a national referendum campaign in the face of the staunch southern secessionism.
In recent days the Sudanese leader's tone has become increasingly more conciliatory, and seemingly more open to the expected choice of separation.
"I think this is quite positive, and quite serious. Maybe we will have to take the president at his word," said James Wani Igga, speaker of the southern Sudan legislature.
The referendum was agreed to in a U.S.-brokered peace deal Bashir's government signed six years ago with the southern-based Sudan People Liberation Movement rebels, ending what at the time was Africa's longest-running conflict, during which an estimated 2 million died.
The peace accord called for a six-year interim period during which both sides were to make national unity look attractive.
World leaders have ratcheted up diplomatic pressure over the past year on Bashir's regime, amid fears that the referendum process could bring Africa's largest nation back to war. In September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the situation as a "ticking time-bomb."
Initial concerns that the vote could not be organized in time have been mostly been pushed aside. Referendum officials say the vote is ready to begin Sunday as planned.
"Everything is set up," said Samuel Machar, an election official. "Internally we are ready. Security-wise we are ready. Only an external obstruction could stop it."
Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. is "optimistic" about the historic vote.
"Sudan and southern Sudan have come a long way over the past few months," he said.
On Juba's streets, many southern Sudanese viewed the president's visit as a welcome step toward conceding the inevitable in a peaceful manner.
"For so long, he has never come over. But this is now the beginning of our freedom," said Baboya James, a young Southern Sudanese standing outside the statehouse.
In the case of secession, Bashir pledged friendly relations. Most of Sudan's oil is found in the south, but is exported through a pipeline running north to the Red Sea, a key factor in negotiations on next steps after the referendum.
"Ties between the north and the south are very huge," the leader said. "We spoke to our brothers on how to keep those ties, even if we have two states."
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)
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