South Sudan could 'organise own referendum': Britain
South Sudan could organise its own referendum on independence if a planned January vote under the auspices of the central government suffers a "huge delay," a top British diplomat quoted the region's president as saying on Thursday.
Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's permanent representative to the United Nations, was speaking after visiting UN Security Council envoys met south Sudan President Salva Kiir for talks the envoy described as "very frank."
Kiir has repeatedly said the January 9 polling date set up by a 2005 peace agreement that ended Africa's longest-running conflict, a civil war between the north and south, is "sacrosanct."
He has accused President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) of delaying progress on preparations for the vote.
Lyall Grant said Kiir told delegates that "if there was a huge delay by the NCP, then they reserve the right to hold their own referendum."
The delegates were in the regional capital Juba to discuss preparations for the landmark vote as international concern grows over the risk of renewed conflict.
"The Security Council is united behind pressing both parties to make necessary preparations to tackle the necessary issues, to allow the referenda to take place on time, be credible and be respected," Lyall Grant told reporters.
The closed door talks lasted for more than two hours, as delegates questioned the south's leaders on issues including the economy, social problems and security.
The independence vote is to be held across the south and in the disputed oil district of Abyei on the north-south border. Preparations have been seriously delayed.
On Thursday, the envoys met representatives of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, the body running the vote. "Those of us who have seen referenda and elections elsewhere in the world do feel that it was a very ambitious timetable," he said.
"The international community will do everything it can to make everything happen," he added.
Most analysts expect voters to opt to break away but there have been no large-scale independent opinion polls.
Southern leaders have previously hinted at the possibility of declaring independence if the planned January referendum were compromised. Under this scenario, a locally organised referendum would be held to legitimise that declaration of independence.
The grossly underdeveloped south is still recovering from decades of war with the north, during which about two million people were killed in a conflict fuelled by religion, ethnicity, ideology and resources including oil.
"Southern Sudan faces many challenges well beyond that, even if indeed there is separation," Lyall Grant said.
The envoys were due to travel on to Sudan's restive western Darfur region later on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, an aircraft carrying the ambassadors suffered a technical hitch as it was about to take off, forcing the cancellation of part of their tour.
Envoys from the 15 Security Council nations and accompanying journalists were on a plane taking them from the southern regional capital Juba to the town of Wau when a problem in the cockpit was signalled.
After waiting on the runway, the delegation was taken to a Russian camp at the UN base at Juba to await a new plane.
© 2010 AFP