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S. Sudan leader cuts short China trip amid conflict

By AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - South Sudan's president will cut short his visit to China amid violence between the world's newest nation and Sudan, officials said on Wednesday, as Beijing announced plans to send a peace envoy.

The curtailment of South Sudan President Salva Kiir's visit to China -- long a key ally of Khartoum -- was confirmed by Wu Bangguo, nominally the second-ranking Chinese leader, during a meeting between the two men in Beijing.

"It is unfortunate that you have to shorten your stay in China due to domestic issues and are not going to Shanghai," Wu told Kiir as the two men began talks in the presence of journalists.

The visit, which started Monday, was scheduled to last until Saturday and was to have included a trip to China's commercial hub. There was no indication when Kiir would leave the country.

Wu, China's top lawmaker, also told Kiir during the meeting that Beijing supported South Sudan's efforts to develop its economy and pledged cooperation, Chinese state television reported.

The curtailment of Kiir's visit comes amid worsening tensions between his country and neighbouring Sudan, prompting him to accuse Khartoum of declaring war on South Sudan in a Tuesday meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

In the latest bout of violence between Sudan and South Sudan -- which gained independence last July -- at least 16 civilians were killed and 34 others wounded in Sudanese air raids on its neighbour's Unity state.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin on Wednesday told reporters Zhong Jianhua -- China's special representative on African affairs -- would visit the two countries to "promote peace talks". He gave no further details.

China has been a key ally and the largest economic partner of diplomatically isolated Khartoum.

But the south's breakaway and recent clashes have forced a Chinese juggling act to maintain support for Khartoum while not alienating the south, the source of most of former Sudan's oil.

South Sudan provided some five percent of China's oil until it shut down production in January over a dispute with Sudan over trans-shipment fees.

China has repeatedly called for an end to weeks of border hostilities that saw the South seize Sudan's most important oil field in the Heglig area on April 10 and hold it for 10 days.

Speaking Tuesday, Hu called on both South Sudan and Sudan to remain calm and resolve the conflict through peaceful negotiations.

Analysts say China is unlikely to take sides and will continue pushing for dialogue despite the worsening situation which has showed the limitations of China's traditional policy of "non-interference".

The current fighting is the worst since South Sudan won independence after a 1983-2005 civil war in which about two million people died.

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