Sudan’s Leader Reaches Out Ahead of a Vote
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
YEI, Sudan — President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who for so long brutally prosecuted the civil war in southern Sudan, arrived here in the region on Tuesday, offering a conciliatory message five days ahead of a historic referendum for southern independence.
“I personally will be sad if Sudan splits,” Mr. Bashir said in a speech in the southern capital of Juba. “But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides. We cannot deny the desire and the choice of the people of the south. This is their right.”
In keeping with his presentation of a man on a mission for peace, he was even decked out in traditional southern robes.
The southerners responded graciously, welcoming Mr. Bashir with a red carpet and an honor guard, though suspicions of his motives remain widespread. After all, he unleashed vicious tribal militias to suppress the insurrection in the south, and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide for similar tactics in Darfur, in Sudan’s west.
Still, Mr. Bashir’s visit seemed to be yet another sign that the independence referendum, that begins on Sunday, is shaping up into an event that will be more peaceful than originally anticipated. The referendum is the culmination of decades of civil war in which animist and Christian southern Sudanese rebelled against Arab rulers in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Nearly four million people have registered to vote.
If the south votes for secession, which is widely expected, it will take around 75 percent of Sudan’s oil. But given that the south is landlocked and the north controls the pipeline, it appears the two sides are now reconciled that they will have to work together — at least in the short term.
Mr. Bashir promised to bolster an independent south, whose existence he appeared to accept.
“Even after the southern state is born, we are ready in the Khartoum government to offer any technical or logistical support and training or advice,” he said. “We are ready to help.”
But it was clear that his comments carried only so much weight here.
“He is speaking very nice,” said Rose Hawa Simon, a former rebel fighter now looking for work in the town of Yei, a four-hour drive from Juba. “He says good words, but we don’t know his heart.”
Josh Kron contributed reporting.