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Al-Bashir visits Southern Sudan ahead of independence vote

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Sudan FM: Sudan will accept referendum
  • NEW: Sen. John Kerry is in Sudan to help with talks
  • Official declares al-Bashir has made his last trip as president of a united Sudan
  • Voters in Southern Sudan will decide Sunday whether to break away
  • Al-Bashir says he will accept vote results "regardless of how painful" they are

Juba, Sudan (CNN) -- Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in the South on Tuesday for a rare visit -- one that will be his last as president of a united Sudan, said a Southern Sudanese official.

Al-Bashir was in the Southern city of Juba to inspect the voting process and meet with senior South Sudanese officials, five days ahead of a referendum that will decide whether the South will become an independent nation.

Speaking to reporters in Juba, which would become the capital of an independent South, al-Bashir said unity was still the best option. But he reiterated his previous pledge to accept the outcome of the referendum, Sudanese state media reported.

"We are a civilized people," he said. "Regardless of how painful the results are, we will greet the result with forgiveness, and patience, and acceptance, and an open heart, God willing."

Confident that the map of Africa would soon change, Southern Sudanese official John Duku said al-Bashir was making his last trip to the region as president and appealed to al-Bashir to recognize the will of the people.

Duku said Southern Sudanese leaders were urging al-Bashir to resolve other issues from a 2005 framework peace agreement that paved the way for the referendum, among them the sharing of oil revenues, border distinctions and rights of citizenship.

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Democratic Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arrived in Southern Sudan on Tuesday to help formulate a broader agreement between north and south.

Kerry, who visited South Sudan twice last fall, said the nation was facing a pivotal moment.

"The United States played an important role in ending the civil war in Sudan and making the vote this Sunday possible," Kerry said in a statement. "Our commitment to the Sudanese people will extend beyond the referendum, whatever its outcome, as we work to improve economic and humanitarian conditions in the region."

The referendum could establish the world's newest country or potentially trigger a renewed civil war in Africa's largest country, a quarter the size of the United States. Two decades of grinding violence between the Arab-dominated North and the oil-rich South, where most people are Christians or animists, have left 2 million people dead, many from disease and starvation.

The hope is that the balloting will turn the peace agreement proposals into a permanent solution. But the stakes are high as the war-torn country tries to move past its bloody history.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday that Washington was "optimistic" about the referendum.

"Our view (is), and the observers in Sudan have viewed the registration process as very credible," Crowley told reporters Monday.

"Sudan and Southern Sudan have come a long way over the past few months," he added.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz and Ingrid Formanek contributed to this report.