Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir arrived to a red-carpet welcome at Juba airport on Tuesday, on a rare trip to the south just five days before it votes in a referendum on independence.

Mr. Bashir was greeted on his arrival by southern leader Salva Kiir, senior southern politicians and a guard of honour from the combined armed forces of north and south Sudan.

Hundreds of well-wishers gathered outside the airport, while a heavy security presence was deployed in Juba, where armed soldiers were seen patrolling the streets.

“We will give him a warm welcome,” said southern Information Minister Barnaba Marial.

“His recent conciliatory statements have pleased a lot of people. We have asked our public to be courteous, welcoming and kind, because there is no competition here,” Mr. Marial told reporters in Sudan's southern capital.

The Sudanese President last week pledged to help build a secure, stable and “brotherly” state in the south if it votes for independence, in a speech delivered in northern Gezira state.

More than 3.5 million southerners are registered to participate in the referendum due to begin on Sunday, which will give them the chance to vote on whether to remain united with the north or secede.

The vote is a key plank of the 2005 north-south peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war in which some two million people were killed and another four million displaced.

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