Arch foe neighbors Sudan and South Sudan signed 10 "cooperation" agreements on Thursday meant to demilitarize the tense border, re-start oil production and open a new page after decades of war and last year’s contentious split into two separate nations. Yet several of the hottest disputes were put off for later talks, signaling that one of the world’s most intractable conflicts still could flare up.
The leaders of the two nations, President Omar al Bashir of Sudan and President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, had been meeting in the capital of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, since Sunday, trying to stave off international wrath and the threat of sanctions after blowing a United Nations deadline to reach a comprehensive end to their long-running, and sometimes bloody, dispute.
The Thursday deal paves the way for South Sudan to re-start its oil production, which must be pumped north through Sudanese pipelines for export. Amid an impasse over how much South Sudan was to pay in transit fees, Sudan began confiscating South Sudan’s oil, leading South Sudan to shut down its oil industry in January.
Last year, South Sudan exercised the right embedded in a U.S.-brokered 2005 peace deal to secede and become an independent nation after decades of civil war between the two sides.
"This is an extraordinarily important event. These are issues that have lingered since the independence of South Sudan," said Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, in a phone interview.
"The next step is implementation. And that takes a lot of work," he said. "I think that’s something that everybody has to keep an eye on."
Re-starting oil production will likely take four to six months, said experts, although some could begin sooner.
The oil shutdown had pushed both sides toward economic collapse, but South Sudan in particular was running out of money. By U.S. State Department projections, South Sudan was about to run out of foreign currency in the next month, at the latest.
The U.N. ratcheted up pressure for a final compromise after border fighting in April over the oil field Heglig, which South Sudan captured with the aid of Sudanese rebels before later withdrawing. Diplomats say both sides have a long history of fueling instability across the border.
The new deal activates a demilitarized zone of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) on both sides of the border, monitored with the assistance of U.N. peacekeepers and overseen by joint committees to resolve disputes. The deal was mediated by the African Union, specifically, former South African President Thabo Mbeki. The United States and Western nations had no direct role in the talks.
Such tactics were hallmarks of the six-year interim peace period set up by the 2005 accord, where political disputes were left hanging in ineffectual technical committees. With no independent way to resolve disputes, the two parties often resorted to brinkmanship or military clashes.
Some diplomats say this time is different, because there are two sovereign states trying to sort out a permanent new way to have relations.
President Barack Obama welcomed the deal.
“The Sudanese and South Sudanese people who have suffered greatly through decades of conflict deserve the benefits of a lasting peace – a peace that can only be achieved through continued dialogue and negotiation, sustained implementation of the agreements reached to date, and steadfast work to resolve remaining issues,” Obama said in an official statement.
The 10 agreements also included deals on re-opening cross-border trade, free movement across the countries and a host of other economic and financial issues.
But the deal did not include a resolution to the disputed border district of Abyei, which was promised a referendum to decide which country to join. Sudan has refused to hold the vote unless northern seasonal cattle-herders are declared eligible to participate as well.
There also was no agreement on how to move forward on other lesser disputed areas, nor on so-called claimed areas – where one side doesn’t recognize that the area is disputed. Negotiations are expected to continue at a later date.
Perhaps the most glaring omission from the pact was that it offered no clear path to resolving the region’s most pressing crisis, where South Sudan-friendly rebels control large sections of the border, where hungry civilians bear the brunt of the renewed war. Diplomats have been pressing for Sudan to allow humanitarian access into the rebel areas, with no breakthrough.
That was starkly clear on Thursday when, as diplomats gathered in the Sheraton hotel in Addis Ababa for the signing ceremony, a Russian-made Antonov warplane flew over a weekly market in the rebel-held Nuba Mountains in Sudan and dropped six bombs, killing Hassia Karri Kuku, a 48-year old mother of seven, and wounding six others, according to Ryan Boyette, an American running the Nuba Reports news service. Indiscriminate bombing over civilian areas is a common tactic by the Sudanese government.
Lyman said that he was heading to the U.N. meetings in New York to seek international consensus on resolving the remaining issues and getting humanitarian aid into the blocked rebel areas.