Referendum . . . a member of the Agaar Marol jumping group leaps into the air in Juba, cheered on by supporters of independence for South Sudan.

Referendum . . . a member of the Agaar Marol jumping group leaps into the air in Juba, cheered on by supporters of independence for South Sudan. Photo: Kate Geraghty

JUBA, South Sudan: The government of South Sudan will send a delegation of eight MPs to Australia next week, seeking urgent assistance in the lead-up to the January 9 referendum that is expected to confirm the region's independence.

With tensions between north and south rising before the vote, there are fears of a return to violence as the northern-led central government in Khartoum tries to resist the secession of the resources-rich southern region.

The referendum is the final step in the formal division of Sudan into two countries that began in 2005 with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement that ended a 22-year civil war that claimed an estimated 2.5 million lives.

The leader of the delegation, Barri Wanji, the chairman of the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly's economics and development committee, said there was a desperate need for technical and financial assistance to ensure a trouble-free vote.

''Australia has led the world in providing assistance to south Sudanese refugees, and that is why we are making this plea to the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard to send whatever assistance she can,'' he told the Herald.

''A big problem is that Khartoum has withheld the funds allocated to pay for conducting the referendum, and we are also requesting that Australia can send as many official election observers as possible.''

Professor Wanji said the government of South Sudan would also extend an official invitation to Ms Gillard to visit next year.

''We want the Australian people, through its government, to be one of the first governments in the world to formally recognise the new nation of South Sudan if the people vote for secession on January 9.''

With voter registration for the referendum beginning on Monday, Professor Wanji said there was every danger that the north would use violence to try to intimidate people from turning out to vote.

''We will also be asking for Australian assistance in the fields of education, agriculture and industry. You are a former colonial nation, who grew from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial power, and we want to know how we can do this too,'' said Professor Wanji, 74.

Also joining the delegation will be a Legislative Assembly member, Gatwech Lam Puoch, an Australian citizen who migrated to Australia in 2000 but returned to Sudan in 2008 to help in the establishment of the new nation.

''Australia is home to nearly 40,000 refugees from the war in Sudan, more than any other country in the world,'' Mr Puoch said. ''We hope that the Australian government can continue to assist us.''

With more than 7000 foreign firms registering to do business in Southern Sudan since 2005, Mr Puoch said the delegation would also be sending the message that Australian business was welcome to invest.

''This is virgin territory, virtually untouched, with massive stores of resources, and with the goodwill that exists here in southern Sudan, we want to raise awareness that Australian companies are more than welcome to do business here.'