The latest remarks by Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on the upcoming referendum on southern independence are "extremely encouraging," US Senator John Kerry said Wednesday in Khartoum.
Bashir on a visit to the southern capital Juba on Tuesday said he would celebrate the results of the referendum even if the south chooses to secede, and pledged last week to help build a secure, stable and "brotherly" southern state if it votes for independence. Kerry hailed the remarks.
"The speech by President Bashir here (December 31) as well as his comments in Juba yesterday are extremely encouraging," Kerry said after talks in Khartoum with influential presidential adviser Ghazi Salaheddine.
"They're very positive, very constructive, and I think it sets a good stage for the events that begin in the next days," the US senator told reporters.
Almost four million southern Sudanese are registered to participate in the January 9-15 referendum that will give them a chance to vote on whether to secede or to remain united with the north.
"We look forward to a successful referendum which is the precursor to a stronger and new relationship with the United States and other countries," Kerry said.
US President Barack Obama announced in November that Washington had extended economic sanctions on Sudan for at least one year, as circumstances which led to their imposition some 13 years ago had not been resolved.
Kerry later said that Washington had offered to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism early if the referendum on southern independence went on track.
But he stressed that this would not affect US sanctions against Khartoum related to Darfur.
Sudan faces huge economic problems, including soaring inflation, caused by the sharp devaluation of the Sudanese pound over the past three months, and large external debts, which could intensify if the oil-rich south breaks away.
"Obviously there are huge economic challenges (in Sudan) and that's something that we discussed today," Kerry said on Wednesday, without elaborating.
Asked whether the United States was offering Sudan any new incentives to help it confront those economic challenges, Salaheddine said nothing concrete had yet been proposed.
"We haven't seen much so far," the presidential adviser said. "They bring it up every time we discuss the issue of Darfur and the future relationship with the United States. This (question of economic support) is more of a bilateral issue actually than one relating to the south or Darfur, even though in the United States they like to see them as interconnected," Salaheddine said.
"They haven't withdrawn their policies. It's always on the table. But this is not the main issue now," he noted, adding that the most important issue for the United States at the moment was to see that the referendum is conducted on time and as planned.
Darfur has been gripped by a civil war since 2003 that has claimed 300,000 lives and displaced 2.7 million people, according to UN figures. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died in the conflict.