55,000 displaced south Sudanese return ahead of referendum

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GENEVA: Some 55,000 displaced southern Sudanese have returned to their homeland from the north in the last few weeks, ahead of a key referendum on south Sudan’s independence, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.

"With the Sudan referendum just weeks away, thousands of southerners living in the north are heading back to southern Sudan," said Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Their movement by road, rail, barge and plane is both organized by the South Sudan government and spontaneous.

"In the last few weeks, nearly 55,000 southern Sudanese have returned to the southern states, mainly to Unity State," the spokesman added.

Southerners are due to vote in a referendum on January 9 on whether to remain united with the north or break away and from their own country.

The vote is a key plank of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south that put an end to more than two decades of civil war.

Edwards said that many more southerners displaced in the north are waiting to head home.

"In the sprawling camps for displaced people around Khartoum, thousands of southerners are packing their belongings and waiting to leave," he said.

However, the returns are straining the fragile humanitarian situation in the south, which is already struggling to cope with more than 215,000 people who had been internally displaced by renewed skirmishes there since January.

The UNHCR said it was mobilizing resources to deal with the increase in returnees by stocking aid supplies, including in surrounding countries.

"At the same time, UNHCR is setting up reception centers along the way in Sudan to assist people during their journey and strengthening its presence and capacity in key southern states and counties," added Edwards.

Since the signing of the CPA in 2005, about two million displaced people have returned to the south, while another 330,000 refugees have headed home from exile elsewhere. However, the flow had slowed sharply by 2009 with just 160,000 returns over the whole year.

On Sunday, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir said that northern Sudan would change its constitution to reinforce its Islamic laws if the south opted for independence in January’s referendum.

"If south Sudan secedes, we’ll change the constitution," he said in a speech on Sudanese television.

"There will be no question of cultural or ethnic diversity. Sharia will be the only source of the constitution, and Arabic the only official language" Bashir added. –AFP

Meanwhile, an internal UN document says the world body is planning for the possibility that 2.8 million people will be displaced in Sudan if fighting breaks out over the south’s January independence referendum.

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