Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to consider setting up a joint force to protect vital oilfields during the ongoing crisis in the South, Sudan's foreign minister has said.
The discussion was broached on Monday during a visit by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to the South Sudanese capital of Juba, where South Sudan requested talks on deploying a joint force to secure at-risk oil fields.
"Sudan and South Sudan are in consultations about the deployment of a mixed force to protect the oilfields in the South," Sudanese foreign minister Ali Ahmed Karti said, adding that Juba had come up with the proposal.
Karti spoke at the airport in Khartoum after visiting Juba, where Bashir met Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan, in a diplomatic effort to halt fighting in South Sudan. Sudan fears the three-week-old conflict in its southern neighbor could disrupt oil flows and damage its own struggling economy.
Bashir's visit came as negotiators in Ethiopia began a process of direct ceasefire talks on Monday to end weeks of fighting.
"We come so that we can bring peace to South Sudan, to our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. Our relationship is very important," Bashir told reporters.
Local media said on Sunday that Bashir would meet President Kiir in Juba for talks on the conflict in the world's youngest country.
Earlier, the foreign ministry spokesman in Khartoum reaffirmed Sudan's wish to see "a continuation of the political process aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict in South Sudan."
The diplomatic effort is aimed at ending three weeks of fighting in South Sudan that has left thousands dead and about 200,000 people displaced.
Also on Monday, China, the biggest investor in South Sudan's oil industry, echoed the call for an immediate ceasefire to unrest that has cut oil production by a fifth.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing was deeply concerned by the fighting in South Sudan, which has forced state-owned oil giant China National Petroleum to evacuate workers.
"China's position with regard to the current situation in South Sudan is very clear," Wang told reporters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where the peace talks are taking place. "First, we call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and violence."
The conflict in South Sudan erupted on Dec. 15, pitting army units loyal to Kiir against a loose alliance of ethnic armed groups and mutinous army commanders nominally headed by Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked last July.
Machar denies allegations that he started the conflict by attempting a coup, and in turn accuses the president of orchestrating a violent purge.
U.N. peacekeeping bases have been overwhelmed with civilians seeking shelter, many of them fleeing ethnic violence between Kiir's Dinka community and Machar's Nuer tribe.