Sudan bishops to press West on dangers of new civil war

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JUBA/ UNITED NATIONS: The head of the Sudanese branch of the Anglican Church warned on Tuesday of the dangers of a new civil war in Africa’s largest country as he prepared to lead a delegation of top clerics to London and Washington to press for more support.

Archbishop Daniel Deng, primate of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, said that massive international assistance was needed for a January referendum on independence for the south that was the centrepiece of a 2005 peace deal which ended two decades of conflict that killed an estimated two million people.

"We are deeply concerned because the risks of war are serious," Deng told AFP in the southern regional capital Juba.

"We are calling for support because we must not be allowed to go back to conflict."

Deng is heading off later this week for talks with British and US officials, and UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, at the head of a delegation of senior Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen.

"We want to give this message as a church to the United Nations, and to the US and the British governments as guarantors of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, that they should not wait until they see that we are back to war," Deng said.

Preparations for the referendum are seriously behind schedule — with little more than 100 days until the agreed polling day, registration has not even started.

Southern leaders are determined to keep to the January 9 date set in the peace agreement but critics warn there is little time left to ensure a credible vote.

Many diplomats fear the south could declare independence unilaterally if there is a delay in organising the vote, potentially leading to renewed civil war.

A simultaneous vote is due to be held in the contested oil district of Abyei on the north-south border, in which residents will be asked decide whether they want to remain part of the north or join an independent or autonomous south.

An organising committee for that vote has yet to be appointed and Deng warned that tensions in the district were already bubbling over between the largely pro-northern Misseriya Arabs and the Ngok branch of the Dinka, viewed as supporters of the south.

"We are hearing now that many people from the Misseryia are coming to the Abyei area," said Deng. "There are already some clashes between them and the Dinka Ngok."

Deng also expressed concern about the lack of progress on promised "popular consultations" in two other former war-zone areas on the north-south border — Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.

He expressed strong criticism of comments made by Information Minister Kamal Obeid in Khartoum last week, warning that southerners living in the north would no longer be citizens if the region chose independence.

"It is the beginning of problems for our country," said Deng, whose flock includes many of the estimated 1.5 million southerners living in the north.

"We take it very seriously when government ministers say things like that."

Complex racial and religious rivalries were driving forces in the 1983-2005 civil war, and tensions remain high between the Arab-dominated north and the non-Arab south, many of whose inhabitants are Christians or followers of traditional beliefs.

Deng said that even if voters opted for independence, northerners and southerners could still live in peace.

"We are all Sudanese and even if we divide ourselves into two, still we can live together," the archbishop said.

"We have a culture and history that are linked together, and separation of the south should not be a threat to our life as people of the Sudan."

Meanwhile, the Sudan government on Monday promised to inject almost two billion dollars into conflict-stricken Darfur, but again demanded war crimes charges against its president to be dropped.

Vice President Ali Osman Taha told the UN General Assembly that 1.9 billion dollars will be spent over four years as part of a new strategy to bring peace to the western region where hundreds of thousands have been killed over the past decade.

Taha said the government wanted to reestablish security, increase development, bring back refugees who have crossed into neighboring countries and bring "reconciliation" to Darfur.

The United Nations has imposed sanctions against Sudan aiming to halt the flow of arms into the region and President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges that he masterminded a campaign of genocide in Darfur.

The United Nations says that up to 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur since an uprising started there in 2003, mainly in protest at the lack of aid given by the government to the region in spite of its oil wealth.

Taha told the UN assembly: "To help economic development is part of the strategy, the government has allocated 1.9 billion dollars from its own revenues to be spent over four years" for Darfur.

He said the government, which still relies heavily on international aid, hoped to get contributions from donors, other countries and international organizations.

He gave no details on how the money would be spent but said the African Union, United Nations and other groups would be involved.

"The government," he said, "wants reconciliation based on a national framework, but that also includes the people of Darfur."

"We would like a partnership with all those who would like to deal with us," Taha said.

But the vice president again lashed out at the ICC over the war crimes investigation against Bashir, who should face arrest if he were to travel internationally because of the warrant.

"The involvement of the ICC is a threat to the peaceful settlement expected by the country" in Darfur and other regions threatened by conflict.

He called the case "crude political intervention" intended to be "a tool to break the will of people" of Sudan.

"We completely reject this intervention which has no place in international law, logic or policy." Taha praised African nations which have allowed Bashir to travel to their countries for international meetings.

He called on the UN Security Council "to withdraw the file completely from the ICC" and let it be handled by Sudan.

Taha highlighted a meeting on Sudan held at the United Nations last week, on preparations for a referendum in southern Sudan which could see the breakup of the country and said it needed a gesture of "cooperation."

The vice president said he was confident the referendum would be held on time and in an "atmosphere of integrity and transparency."

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