NEW YORK: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met here Tuesday with Sudan’s Vice President Ali Osman Taha, as international pressure mounted on Khartoum to hold two planned referendums next year that could lead to the country’s breakup.
As her meeting began in New York, Clinton said she would raise with Taha the referendums to be held in January in south Sudan and in the oil-rich region of Abyei.
US officials said they expect that the votes will lead to the south’s secession from the north.
The meeting took place in Clinton’s hotel on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, where President Barack Obama is expected to press the need for timely referendums at a special high-level meeting on Sudan on Friday.
Clinton joined her counterparts William Hague of Britain and Jonas Gahr Store of Norway in saying their countries have written to Taha and his southern Sudanese counterpart Salva Kiir urging them to step up vote preparations.
The three countries are taking the lead in shoring up the fragile 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended in a 22-year civil war between Sudan’s Arab and Muslim-dominated north and the mainly Christian and animist south.
The Sept. 17 letter "commended recent progress" on the preparations, and urged the parties "to take swift action to ensure that peaceful referendums take place on time," amid growing concern in the international community that preparations for the January votes are behind schedule.
"There remains an enormous amount to be done and work must be accelerated to make up for lost time," the letter said.
The referendums are part of a US-backed 2005 peace accord which ended a 22-year-old civil war in which an estimated two million people died.
Many diplomats fear that a delay in the votes could lead to a unilateral declaration of independence by the south and a possible new conflict.
The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC)’s work was previously stalled as both southern and northern leaders demanded their candidate take the post, but last month the south relented to allow a northern candidate.
But work has still not been finished on completing the frontiers between the two sides and other major technical preparations. Even the wording of the referendum has not yet been revealed.
In her joint statement with the two foreign ministers, Clinton said: "We have highlighted to the parties that it is their responsibility to ensure that the commission moves quickly to take critical decisions on further preparations."
These include "finalizing an operational plan and budget; agreeing on voter registration criteria and procedures; and hiring and training of registration workers," among other moves.
During a meeting at the United Nations on Friday, Obama will deliver a "very forceful" message that the referendums in Sudan must go ahead on time, a top aide said.
Samantha Power, a senior US national security aide, said Monday that the US president had decided to take part in what had been originally billed as a ministerial meeting to stress Sudan was approaching a "critical" moment.
During a separate meeting in her hotel, Clinton and Libya’s foreign minister Musa Kusa agreed meanwhile to cooperate on Sudan, which shares a border with Libya, according to a Twitter message from Clinton’s spokesman Philip Crowley.
And during a meeting here on Monday, Crowley told reporters that Clinton also urged Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China, a major trade partner with Sudan, to back full implementation of the 2005 peace agreement.