Sudan asks rebels to help draft constitution as tensions ease

KHARTOUM Tue Mar 26, 2013 12:58pm EDT

Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Taha speaks during a news conference in Khartoum March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Taha speaks during a news conference in Khartoum March 26, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's vice president on Tuesday invited rebel groups to help prepare a new constitution, a sign of Khartoum's newly-relaxed stance toward the insurgents since signing border security deals with South Sudan this month.

Relations between Sudan and its southern neighbor have been tumultuous since the two split apart in July 2011 under a peace deal that ended decades of civil war - and both have accused the other of continuing to support rebels in their territories.

After the split, the two fell out over the position of their border, the status of disputed land, the division of national debt and how much the landlocked South should pay to export its oil through Sudan, among other issues.

Tensions compelled South Sudan to shut off its entire 350,000 barrel-a-day oil industry - the lifeblood of both economies - in January last year, and brought the two close to all-out war a few months later.

But Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Taha said on Tuesday the two were headed toward warmer ties since agreeing in African Union-brokered talks this month to a timeline for resolving some of their most bitter disputes.

He called on Malik Agar and Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leaders of rebels fighting in the border areas with South Sudan, to help prepare a new constitution, which Sudan had been supposed to draft after the South's secession.

"I invite all political and opposition forces and Malik Agar and Abdelaziz al-Hilu to join in preparing the new constitution," Taha said in a rare press conference in Khartoum.

"There is no way to continue with partial solutions, and Agar and al-Hilu have a right like any other Sudanese citizen to participate in preparing the new constitution."

He said dialogue with the rebels, who are known as the SPLM-North, would aim at completing "popular consultations," a process supposed to define the relationship between people in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile border states and Khartoum.

Popular consultations were provided as part of the 2005 peace deal with the South, but they were halted when fighting broke out in the two states.

The rebels sided with the south during the civil war with Khartoum that led up to South Sudan's independence. But they were left inside Sudan after the partition.

Fighting between the SPLM-North and Sudan's government reignited around the time South Sudan seceded. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in the two states.

The rebels have said they are open to talks with the government but there is a long way to go before achieving peace.

OIL FLOWS SET TO RESUME

After months of tangled African Union-brokered negotiations in Addis Ababa, Sudan and South Sudan agreed this month to a timeline to withdraw troops from the roughly 2,000-km (1,200-mile) border and restart southern oil exports.

The two had agreed to many of these issues in September, but tensions over the war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile prevented them from carrying out the deal.

Taha said both presidents were committed to following the timetable and there would be more communication between the two countries in the future to make sure that happened.

He also expressed confidence southern petroleum would soon flow through Sudan's territory again - something both sides say they have given orders to oil companies to prepare for.

"This time when the pumping resumes we'll strive to use the returns of the oil coming from the South to build up our manufacturing and agricultural resources," Taha said.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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