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JUBA, Sudan (AP) — Sudan's government waged war with the south for more than two decades and repeatedly tried to delay an independence referendum. Now, in a rare visit, President Omar al-Bashir said Tuesday he will help the oil-rich south if next week's vote splits Africa's largest nation in two.
Al-Bashir, who is wanted on allegations of genocide and other atrocities committed in Sudan's western Darfur region, said unity cannot be imposed by force. Still, the need to maintain strong economic ties with the south if it becomes a new nation as expected may be why he is playing nice.
"We will be happy to achieve the real peace and final peace for all citizens in the north and the south," al-Bashir told southern officials and civil society leaders during a rare visit to the southern capital of Juba. He pledged to give a fledgling Southern Sudan "anything you need."
Analysts said his remarks reflected a growing realization that the Sudanese government, also battling insurgencies in the east and west, could not delay the week-long referendum on independence in the south that starts Sunday. They also illustrate the economic co-dependence between the oil-rich south and the north, where oil pipelines run to the sea.
The mainly Christian south is widely expected to vote for secession from the mainly Muslim north. Southern Sudanese are still haunted by the war that left 2 million people dead. Northern tribes supported by the government launched slave raids into the south, and the military bombed villages built of grass and sticks.
Hundreds of Sudanese brandishing Southern Sudan flags and pro-independence placards demonstrated outside the airport when al-Bashir landed.
"The writing is on the wall," said Jon Temin, a Sudan expert at the United States Institute of Peace. "The referendum is going to happen, and the international community is putting its support behind it. This is increasingly apparent to Khartoum and that does affect their behavior."
Activists have been warning that the unstable region, still populated by unpredictable militias, risks a return to violence. But al-Bashir's remarks seemed designed to allay those fears and help ensure a continuous flow of southern oil through the pipelines of the north.
"We want unity between the north and the south but this doesn't mean opposing the desire of the southern citizen," al-Bashir said, shortly after donning a traditional southern robe over his business suit. "Imposing unity by force doesn't work."
Suspicious southerners argue that's exactly what he's done since seizing power in a 1989 coup. Although a peace agreement was signed with the south in 2005, Sudan still faces rebellions in all of its other outlying regions, a consequence of government policies that concentrate wealth in the hands of a narrow Islamist elite while leaving most of the country impoverished.
Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, for alleged war crimes in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. U.N. officials say the war in Darfur has claimed at least 300,000 lives since it began in 2003 through violence, disease and displacement. Al-Bashir and two other men linked to his government have refused to appear before the court or recognize its jurisdiction.
"Even if (al-Bashir) says he will support us from the south, we don't need his support. If he is in a position to support us, then why did he not support us before, during these 21 years of war?" asked 23-year-old Steven Valentino.
Southerners say the Khartoum-based government repeatedly sought to delay the vote, withholding funding and citing logistical difficulties and unresolved disputes. Khartoum obstructed a census held in 2008 by refusing to share data with the south and even launched several bombing raids in southern territory in early December.
But al-Bashir was all smiles as he walked on a red carpet after landing in Juba. A marching band played and an honor guard of troops stood at attention as Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a former rebel, welcomed him. The two men held closed-door discussions on the status of the disputed region of Abyei and post-referendum relations.
Even if the south votes to secede, the two nations will remain locked in mutual economic dependency. The south cannot export its oil resources without using a pipeline that runs through northern territory. And the pipeline is useless for the north unless it is fed with southern oil. Sudan is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer.
Al-Bashir said one reason he had come to visit the south was to minimize any post-referendum backlash and see how the two nations could work together. He said that if the south votes to secede from Sudan: "We will come to you and celebrate ... we will not hold a mourning tent."
Nearly 4 million people have registered to vote and many will have to walk hours through bush — in some areas still peppered with land mines — to reach a polling station. Few towns in Southern Sudan have even a single paved road.
The vote will be closely scrutinized by more than 3,000 international and domestic observers. Actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast will arrive on Thursday and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will come as part of the Carter Center's 100-strong observation delegation.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki will speak in Juba on Friday and former U.S. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry already has arrived. China, which has invested heavily in Sudanese oil development, is also sending observers.