Residents of Kadugli gather to collect water outside UNMIS sector HQ. - AFP (File Photo)

ADDIS ABABA: The leaders of north and south Sudan began talks in Ethiopia on Sunday aimed at resolving the crises in the border regions of Abyei and South Kordofan, one month ahead of southern independence.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir and south Sudan leader Salva Kiir held talks on the key issue of Abyei, focusing on the appointment of a new administration and future security arrangements in the bitterly contested region, Sudan's official SUNA news agency reported.

“The dialogue continued on Abyei and how to create a new administration and (resolve) the security situation, especially in light of a proposal to deploy Ethiopian forces in the place of UNMIS,” the report said, referring to the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan. Khartoum has ordered UNMIS to leave when its mandate expires next month.

Sunday's negotiations, held at the presidential palace in Addis Ababa, were attended by former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

“The meetings will continue tomorrow on the issues raised and with the participation of the delegations from both sides,” the report added.

Mbeki heads an African Union team trying to broker agreement on a raft of outstanding issues between north and south Sudan ahead of the south's formal declaration of independence on July 9, which are all due to be discussed in the coming days.

The two sides have struggled to make progress on resolving those issues, of which the future status of Abyei remains the most sensitive and intractable.

Northern troops occupied the contested border region on May 21, in response to an attack on a convoy of northern army troops and UN peacekeepers, which was blamed on the army of the south.

Malik Agar, head of the northern branch of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party in the south, said the top level delegations had come “for talks to resolve serious issues.” An AU statement prior to the talks had indicated that they would focus on Abyei, among other “key issues facing Sudan at this historic juncture.”

High on the agenda is the issue of Abyei, including the withdrawal of armed forces from the area and the dispatch of an African-led international mission to provide security, to provide conditions for the speedy return of displaced people and steps towards a final settlement of the status of the area,” it said.

Representatives of the Sudanese government and leaders of the SPLM from the “two areas” of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan were also due to meet on Sunday and Monday.

“This high-level meeting will focus on the political and security challenges of the two areas including the immediate challenge of an end to the armed conflict that has recently erupted in Southern Kordofan State.”

Heavy clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and northern members of the former southern rebel army have raged all week across South Kordofan, the north's only oil-producing state, where tensions are rising along with fears of intensified air strikes.

The violence in central Sudan has poisoned the atmosphere of the ongoing north-south negotiations in Ethiopia, according to sources close to the talk.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will arrive in the Ethiopian capital on Monday as part of her Africa tour, will meet with Kiir but not with Bashir, an aide said.

Bashir has been charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague but refuses to recognise its authority, though his travels have been severely restricted.

UN officials estimate more 100,000 people, mostly southern Dinka Ngok farmers, fled the northern army's occupation of Abyei last month, while up to 40,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Kadugli alone.

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