Sudanese rebels flew into Khartoum, the capital, yesterday for a historic visit marking the success of peace talks in neighbouring Kenya.
For the first time in 20 years, delegates from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the armed southern rebellion, landed at Khartoum airport, a move that would have led to instant arrest only months ago. Ecstatic supporters hoisted Pagan Amum of the SPLM army leadership council on their shoulders and carried him to the waiting government delegation.
Others in the 10-person team grinned broadly and waved clenched fists.
Thousands of cheering supporters thronged outside the airport, waving banners, singing, "Down with the Old Sudan" and brandishing posters of the rebel leader, John Garang. Most came from the squalid camps on the edge of Khartoum that house most of the city's southern population. Forced from their homes by war, they say they are treated like second-class citizens by Arab northerners. Standing opposite a camouflaged truck full of riot police, some supporters defiantly waved flags of "New Sudan", an entity declared by the rebels during the bitter conflict that has claimed more than two million lives since 1983. But many were furious when government officials directed the rebel convoy away from the main crowd and down a road leading from the airport.
The visit coincided with the resumption of talks between Dr Garang and Ali Osman Taha, the government vice-president, at a lakeside lodge in Naivasha, Kenya.
At the airport, Malok Mayot, a jobless Dinka from Abyei, a southern town whose future status has been the subject of tough negotiations in Kenya, said: "We want to live together in one country, but, if the government cannot change its policies, we will form our own country." The SPLM supporters were joined by a smaller number of Arabs from northern opposition parties, including that of Hassan al Turabi, the once-powerful Islamic ideologue, recently released from house arrest. Mohamed Ibrahim of the Umma party said: "Democracy is not available here now. We expect it will come with the peace."
The rebel delegation is due to meet government officials, members of civil society and religious groups in preparation for the signing of a peace deal, probably after Christmas. Some key sticking points have already been agreed, including that the rebels will administer southern Sudan for a six-year transition period, following which a referendum will determine whether to secede from the Arab-dominated north. The talks have been propelled forward by international pressure, particularly from the United States, which has hinted it might drop Sudan's "terrorist-sponsoring" accusation in return for a successful outcome. But thorny issues, such as the distribution of oil wealth and the fate of three borderline areas, are yet to be decided. It is also unclear whether Sharia law will apply within the limits of Khartoum.
Faith between the two sides remains brittle, as demonstrated yesterday. Both northerners and southerners shouted angry recriminations after being denied a chance to see the SPLM delegation. Henry Amoko, a teacher forced to leave his home in the South 20 years ago, said: "We are disgusted with the behaviour of the Arabs. They say one thing in Naivasha and do something different on the ground. They don't want unity to happen, and neither do we." Abdul Nour, a northern man beside him, said: "I've been waiting here since morning. They didn't want them [the SPLM] to see us here. But we will wait and see what this brings."
Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, is due to visit Sudan on Wednesday to bolster the peace process.