Sudan Abyei vote deadline 'impossible': north
By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - North Sudanese leaders said on Thursday it was impossible to hold a referendum on the future of the country's disputed, oil-rich Abyei region on time and that the poll could be delayed or settled without a vote.
An official from the south's main party told Reuters it would be "unacceptable" to postpone the politically sensitive vote from the January 9 deadline set in a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa's longest-running civil war.
The official said Abyei residents might be forced to hold their own referendum without northern approval, raising the prospect of a diplomatic rift or even conflict.
Both north and south Sudan claim the oil-producing region and fought over it during a decades-long civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people and forced 4 million to flee.
The plebiscite on whether Abyei should be with the north or south is scheduled to occur on the same day as a broader referendum on southern secession. Preparations for both votes are behind schedule.
The predominantly Christian and animist southerners, embittered by the conflict and perceived northern exploitation, are widely expected to vote for secession.
Relations between the two former foes have remained deeply troubled since the 2005 peace deal and northern and southern forces have clashed in the area since the accord.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday his administration was using a range of diplomatic means to ensure peaceful voting in the referendums.
"This is a huge issue, something we're paying a lot of attention to," Obama told young voters, saying millions more could die if new violence erupted in Sudan.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said south Sudan feared the north may be preparing for war before the referendum on southern independence.
In a statement to the U.N. Security Council summarizing the 15-nation panel's trip to Sudan last week, Rice confirmed the president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, asked for a U.N.-run 10-mile (16-km) buffer zone along the north-south border.
During a meeting with council members in Juba, the capital of semi-autonomous south Sudan, Rice said Kiir had "warned that he fears the north may be preparing for war and may be moving troops southwards."
Rice's remarks to the council, a council envoy said, appeared aimed at bolstering the case for a possible Security Council decision in the near future to boost temporarily the number of U.N. peacekeepers deployed in Sudan.
A U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the U.N. peacekeeping department was preparing plans to redeploy some peacekeepers in hotspots along the border between north and south Sudan. Redeploying peacekeepers does not require Security Council approval.
REFERENDUM 'NOT COMPLETELY OUT OF THE WINDOW'
Northern officials told journalists in Khartoum on Thursday they had failed to resolve a dispute with southerners over who should take part in the Abyei referendum and they had now run out of time to hold the vote as scheduled.
"It is very clear that right now it is not possible to have the Abyei referendum on 9 January, 2011. We all agree that this is no longer practical," Didiri Mohammad Ahmad, a senior member of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, told reporters.
"We agreed that in the next talks we will try to look for other alternatives."
One alternative, he said, was for the sides to reach "a conclusion on the final status of the Abyei area" themselves.
Sudan's minister of international cooperation, Jalal Yousif al-Dagir, told the news conference the government would be open to a proposal to delay the referendum by four months or more.
"The referendum is not completely out of the window but it is apparent now that other solutions may be the real alternative," he said.
Abyei's administrator said its residents would not accept a delay and may hold their own vote without the government.
"A delayed vote is unacceptable. The people of Abyei are still holding out for the referendum to be held on January 9. If the government does not give them that option, we can have a self-run referendum," said Deng Arop Kuol, a member of south Sudan's dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM.
Kuol declined to comment on whether he would accept any alternative to the Abyei vote, but said he and the SPLM would return to negotiations with the north in Addis Ababa, scheduled for the end of the month.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made clear the United States wanted the referendum in Abyei as well as the broader vote on whether southerners wish to stay with Sudan or to declare independence to go ahead on schedule.