Sudan lays out series of conditions for sensitive referendum on southern independence

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sudan sets conditions for south independence vote

CAIRO — Sudan’s ruling party on Tuesday laid down a series of conditions for holding a crucial referendum on southern secession, including demarcating the borders and redeploying southern forces, that could further inflame tensions in the divided country.

Cabinet minister Hajj Majid Suwar told the state news agency that in addition to drawing up the potential borders between the two halves of the country, southern military units had to redeploy south of the 1956 border.

North and south Sudan fought a brutal 21-year civil war, one of the bloodiest of the second half of the 20th century with at least 2 million dead. It ended with a 2005 peace agreement that stipulated a Jan. 9 referendum over southern desires to secede.

“They are just looking for a pretext of starting war,” said Lt. Gen. Kuol Deim Kuol, the spokesman for southern Sudan’s military about the statement, while calling Suwar a “war monger.”

He maintained that southern forces had not moved since 2006 and none of them were in northern lands — contrary to the view of the central government.

Independent experts have warned that both sides are building up their forces in anticipation of an outbreak of hostilities over the referendum.

The new conditions, which include calls for the south not to interfere with those campaigning for the unity of the country, could be interpreted by the southerners as a stalling tactic by a north reluctant to lose the oil-rich southern half of the country.

Much of the boundary between the oil-rich south and the northern, Muslim-dominated government is undefined and contested — mainly because of the region’s richness in resources. The south has called for the referendum to go ahead even if final borders are not agreed upon.

A little more than three months before the referendum, concerns are rising that mistrust between the northern and southern governments could derail it altogether.

The Atlanta-based Carter Center, which has sent 16 observers to Sudan for the referendum, noted in a statement Tuesday that much still needs to be done ahead of the vote, including approving the overseeing commission’s budget, hiring its staff and drawing up plans to implement voter registration.

During the current U.N. General Assembly session, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and world leaders expressed concerns that preparations for the vote are lagging and urged a timely and peaceful ballot to ensure any possible transition is smooth and does not ignite a new civil war.

Last week, President Barack Obama attended high-level talks on Sudan organized by the U.N. chief. His presence demonstrated Washington’s concern in a peaceful resolution to the decades-long conflict. He stated that “what happens in Sudan matters to all of sub-Saharan Africa, and it matters to the world.”

The U.S. has offered Sudan the possibility of restored diplomatic relations if it improves conditions in the conflict-wracked western Darfur region and does not undermine the referendum.

Along with the Jan. 9 referendum on southern independence, the oil-rich central region of Abyei is to vote that day whether it should belong in Sudan’s north or in a possible new country in the south. Leaders in the Arab-dominated north and mainly black African south are in a tug-of-war over Abyei, home to oil fields worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Associated Press writer Maggie Fick in Juba, Sudan, contributed to this report.

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