Juba: Sudan`s President Omar al-Bashir has told southerners on a rare visit to Juba that he would celebrate the result of Sunday`s referendum on southern independence, "even if you choose secession."
"I personally will be sad if Sudan splits. But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides," Bashir said in a speech to senior southern officials during his one-day visit.
"I am going to celebrate your decision, even if your decision is secession."
On his arrival at Juba airport, the president was given a red carpet welcome by southern leader Salva Kiir, senior politicians, religious leaders and a guard of honour from the combined armed forces of north and south Sudan.
Around 500 people gathered outside the airport, shouting slogans in favour of separation, such as "no to unity," and waving southern flags, but the atmosphere was festive. The south is widely expected to vote in favour of secession.
A heavy security presence was deployed in Juba, where armed soldiers were seen patrolling the streets.
In his speech, Bashir said unity was the best choice for southerners but he also insisted he wanted good relations with the south if it chooses independence, and repeated his message that the links between north and south Sudan were unique.
"Anything you need in terms of technical, logistical or professional support from Khartoum, you will find us ready to give it," he said.
"The benefit we get from unity, we can also get it from two separate states."
Before flying back to Khartoum, Bashir held talks with Kiir at the presidency on key post-referendum issues that both leaders have committed to negotiate within six months of the vote.
The issues to be negotiated include future citizenship arrangements, security and the shareout of oil wealth and debt. The leaders must also forge a consensus on border demarcation, with around 20 percent of the north-south border yet to be agreed on.
Bashir said at a meeting with civil society groups in Juba that the demarcation process would be completed by July 9, when the south would gain independence if it votes that way, and called for free border movements, according to the north`s official SUNA news agency.
"The demarcation of the border will be completed before July 9, but that does not mean building a separation wall. It means a delimitation that allows the movement of citizens from both sides," according to the laws in force, Bashir said.
Southern information minister Barnaba Marial said Kiir and Bashir had pledged to resolve all outstanding post-referendum issues by July.
Marial had earlier promised a warm welcome by southerners for Bashir, saying his recent conciliatory statements "have pleased a lot of people."
Last week, the Sudanese president pledged to help build a secure, stable and "brotherly" state in the south if it votes for independence, adding that his government would be the first to recognise the new country.
Almost four million southerners are registered to participate in the referendum, which will give them the chance to vote on whether to remain united with the north or secede. Voting is due to start on Sunday and last for a week.
The US State Department said on Monday that it was "optimistic" about the staging of the referendum this weekend and senior US Senator John Kerry arrived in Khartoum on Tuesday promising Washington would stay engaged with Sudan after the vote.
"Sudan is at a pivotal moment," Kerry said in a statement released by his office in Washington at the start of a week-long visit.