KHARTOUM: Sudan remains on course to break up next year after the UN Security Council put new pressure on the government over a self-determination referendum, but the major powers are still fretting over how to avoid conflict.
Council ambassadors spent four days testing independence fever on the red dust roads of South Sudan and the North’s opposition to the breakup of Africa’s oil-rich biggest nation.
The envoys left Khartoum on Saturday having warned both sides to make sure that a January 9 self-determination referendum in the South was held on time.
The South is virtually certain to choose secession and many neighbors and western nations fear new violence if the vote is delayed.
Britain’s ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the timetable was now "extremely tight", but that if the political commitment shown by the governments in the North and South was followed up the vote could go ahead on time.
The referendum is part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended a two-decade-long North-South civil war in which two million people died.
Vote preparations are way behind schedule and tensions are high. North Sudan demonstrators and police clashed with a small group of South Sudan activists in Khartoum on Saturday as the UN envoys met Sudan’s foreign minister.
The South’s President Salva Kiir asked the Security Council to deploy peacekeepers along the disputed frontier before the vote when he met them in Juba last week, diplomats said. No promise was made however.
Sudan is already the country with the biggest UN peacekeeping operation.
The rival governments accuse each other of staging a military buildup on the frontier, which has still not been permanently fixed — one of "the key outstanding issues" that Lyall Grant, co-leader of the UN mission with US ambassador Susan Rice, said has to be decided for the vote to go ahead.
The Security Council also expressed concern over an "upsurge" in violence in Darfur, the western region where at least 300,000 people have been killed since 2003, according to the UN estimates.
Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Karti told the ambassadors his government did not want "war" over the independence vote, but that it would not accept the result if there was "interference" — a veiled warning about secession calls by the South’s leaders.
Sudan has taken on added importance on the international agenda since US President Barack Obama spoke at a UN meeting on Sudan last month and said a peaceful vote must be held on time.
On top of the referendum, however, much will depend on any final accord over the frontier, the sharing of the major oil revenues and the citizenship of northerners and southerners who live on the other side of the border.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki is mediating negotiations.
"Mbeki is a kind of divorce lawyer. The North knows what the result of any referendum is going to be so it is holding out for the best deal possible," said one diplomat from one of the UN delegations.
"There seems to be some hopeful commitment by the two sides to make sure the referendum goes ahead. But the problem in the next three months will not be justing keeping the two governments on track," the diplomat added.
"The two armies, the tribes on the borders and the local politicians have all got to be restrained."
While none of the ambassadors says that the south’s independence is inevitable, and all say that the result must be respected whichever way it falls, all are preparing for one likely result.
After seeing thousands of new South Sudan police being trained at an academy near the capital, Juba, last week US ambassador Rice told reporters: "All the institutions of state are literally being built from scratch."
The new recruits, many of whom have moved back from northern Sudan, were equally certain of the result.
"This is a vote for our freedom. Our fathers fought the north in the civil war, many of them died. Now this is our right," said David Diine, a former fighter in the south’s rebel army and now a sergeant in the South’s new police.