JUBA, Sudan – In a rare visit to a region with which he once fought a civil war, Sudan's president said Tuesday he is ready to welcome and assist Southern Sudan as a new country if it votes for independence as expected in a referendum next week.
President Omar al-Bashir was all smiles as he walked on a red carpet after landing in Juba, the capital of the oil-rich south. As a gesture of respect, he put a traditional blue southern robe over his suit. A marching band played and an honor guard of troops stood at attention as Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir welcomed al-Bashir.
Hundreds of pro-independence demonstrators chanted and waved placards outside the airport showing a single hand, the symbol representing a vote for independence. "Welcome to the 193rd country," one sign read, referring to Southern Sudan's hopes to become the world's newest nation. The result of the weeklong referendum that begins Sunday is widely expected to be for independence, splitting Africa's largest nation in two.
"Imposing unity by force doesn't work," al-Bashir later told southern officials and civil society leaders in Juba. "We want unity between the north and the south but this doesn't mean opposing the desire of the southern citizen."
Al-Bashir has only recently begun publicly referring to the possibility that the south might secede and offering to support the new nation. His Khartoum-based government repeatedly sought to delay the vote, 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.
The international community, including the United States, is paying close attention to preparations for the referendum and says it must come off on time.
"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 that the international community is putting its support behind it. This is increasingly apparent to Khartoum and that does affect their behavior."
Al-Bashir is expected to discuss several issues with southern Sudanese leaders during his visit to Juba, including the status of the disputed border region of Abyei.
Al-Bashir said that if the south votes to secede from Sudan, "We will come to you and celebrate ... we will not hold a mourning tent."
"We will be happy to achieve the real peace and final peace for all citizens in the north and the south," he added, pledging Khartoum's support for "anything you need."
Nearly 4 million people in the south have registered to vote in the referendum, which is the result of a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war between the mainly Christian south and the mainly Muslim north. Some 2 million people died in the conflict.
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.
Al-Bashir took power in a 1989 coup and has remained at the helm of Africa's largest country for more than two decades by waging war in all of Sudan's peripheral regions, and by pitting rival factions in each region against each other. His government has enriched a narrow Islamist elite while leaving most of the country underdeveloped and impoverished.
Southern Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said that southerners should welcome the president's visit after al-Bashir said earlier this week that he would be the first to recognize an independent south.
Another minister in the southern government, Deng Alor, said he was pleased with the president's expression of support. But he said that more serious discussions are needed on relations between the north and south after the vote, especially over the future of the fertile Abyei region.
The vote will be closely scrutinized by more than 3,000 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 arrive Saturday as part of the Carter Center's 100-strong observation delegation. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki will speak in Juba on Friday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday that Beijing is also sending observers to Southern Sudan for the vote. China has been seeking strong relations with officials in both Sudan's north and south ahead of the vote. Sudan is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer.
Election observers have said they hope the polls will be peaceful, but independent militias might threaten to cause disturbances in some areas.
If the south votes for independence, both sides will still need to maintain a relationship. Southern Sudan has most of the nation's oil, but the north has most of the infrastructure — including a pipeline that leads to a port.