Southern Sudan says vote on independence is off-limits for United Nations

By Barney Jopsonin
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

MALAKAL, SUDAN -- A surprise intervention in Sudan by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has drawn warnings from senior officials here, who say any outside efforts to influence a referendum on independence next year could lead to further conflict.

At an African Union summit over the weekend, Ban said he would "work hard" to avoid the secession of southern Sudan following the referendum.

Southern Sudan's regional government quickly decried that as an attempt to influence the outcome of a referendum that the United Nations is meant only to administer.

"It is not the responsibility of the U.N. to help the people of the south to take either decision," said Luka Biong Deng, minister of presidential affairs in southern Sudan's regional government.

Ban's views have been echoed by others. Diplomats fear that a vote for independence in southern Sudan would resonate in Nigeria, Congo and elsewhere.

Sudan's north-south civil war ended with a peace deal in 2005, and the country is preparing for two watershed events: next January's referendum on southern independence and this April's national elections.

But here in Malakal, the dust-blown riverside capital of Upper Nile, one of the south's oil-rich states, relations remain tense between the two armies that live on either side of a dividing line.

The Sudanese Armed Forces of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan's Islamist president, and the mainly Christian former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army were supposed to merge under the 2005 deal ending a 22-year war that left 2 million people dead. But Malakal is a glaring example of how mistrust on basic issues -- politics, religion, tribe -- is preventing some of the so-called joint integrated units from working.

Twice since 2006, the area has been shaken by gunfire between the two armies, sparked by visits to the town by Gabriel Tang, a northern general and wartime nemesis of the SPLA. Clashes last February killed 30 civilians, and as many soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch.

Some in Malakal fear that the next flash point will be the April elections, Sudan's first in 24 years.

Most Sudanese are enthusiastic about the elections. But Western diplomats say that the process will be too messy -- millions of illiterate people will vote in areas where safeguards against fraud are limited -- and that it is not worth the risk of added violence so close to the independence referendum. Others argue that Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Sudan's Darfur region, will let the referendum take place only if the elections give him legitimacy.

The vote is important for diplomats who want to negotiate a deal between elected officials in northern and southern Sudan that would give the south de facto independence.

-- Financial Times

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