Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir told southerners on a rare visit to Juba on Tuesday 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 at the start of 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.
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."
A heavy security presence was deployed in Juba, where armed soldiers were seen patrolling the streets.
After his speech, Bashir held talks with Kiir on key post-referendum issues that both leaders have committed to negotiate within six months of the vote.
These include future citizenship arrangements, security and the shareout of oil wealth and debt. They must also forge a consensus on border demarcation, with around 20 per cent of the north-south border yet to be agreed on.
Southern information minister Barnaba Marial said the leaders had during their meeting pledged to resolve all outstanding issues by July, when south Sudan would gain independence should the vote go that way.
"(Bashir) said that should the people of south Sudan choose to be an independent state, he will be the first with his government to recognise the new born country."
Marial had earlier promised a warm welcome by southerners for Bashir, saying his recent conciliatory statements "have pleased a lot of people."
The Sudanese president last week pledged to help build a secure, stable and "brotherly" state in the south if it votes for independence, in a speech delivered in northern Gezira state.
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 referendum is a key plank of the 2005 north-south peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war in which some two million people were killed and another four million displaced.
The US State Department said on Monday that it was "optimistic" about the staging of the referendum this weekend.
"We believe the right signals are being sent both in the north and south in terms of the upcoming referendum and respecting the results," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
Posters erected by non-governmental civil society groups at the entrance to Juba airport on Tuesday served as a reminder to Bashir of the expected outcome of the referendum.
"We welcome you back to celebrate the independence of south Sudan," read one. "Welcome to the 193rd (world) state," ran another.