Sudan: Strong disagreement over oil region raises war fears

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The date for a referendum vote to split the oil-rich Abyei region in Sudan has renewed tensions between northern Sudan and southern Sudan. The north says it was impossible to hold a referendum on the future of the disputed oil-rich region on time. And the south says it would be “unacceptable” to postpone the politically sensitive vote from the January 9 deadline.

North and south Sudan both claim the oil-producing region of Abeyi and fought over it during a decades-long civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people and forced 4 million to flee, according to United Nations estimates.

“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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Preparations for votes over Abyei region and the votes for independence are behind schedule according to experts. However, south Sudan’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) say Abyei’s 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,” Deng Arop Kuol, a member of south Sudan’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, told reporters.

According to reports this rift over the oil-rich region is raising the prospect of a diplomatic row or even conflict, with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice saying the south Sudan fears the north may be preparing for war before the referendum on southern independence.

This came after the president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir “warned that he fears the north may be preparing for war and may be moving troops southwards.”

Meanwhile, the U.N. peacekeeping department is reportedly preparing plans to redeploy some peacekeepers in hotspots along the border between north and south Sudan.

A 2005 US-backed Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended a 20-year civil war between north and south. The agreement included a referendum for southern Sudan’s independence due to be held on January 9.

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