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 from the 15 countries that sit on the council 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, but 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," Lyall Grant 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 arrived later in El-Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, hours after the military said it had wrested a key sector from rebels in bloody fighting 150 kilometres (93 miles) away in which seven rebels were killed.
The rebels, members of Abdelwahid Nur's Sudan Liberation Army, confirmed the clashes but said they still controlled the Suni district.
A spokesman for the rebels, Ibrahim al-Hillu, demanded that the UN delegation visit areas that have witnessed fighting "and put an end to ethnic cleansing," in reference to reports of 47 deaths in fighting since Sunday.
The delegates were met at the airport by about 300 demonstrators chanting slogans supporting Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
"With our blood and our souls we sacrifice ourselves for Bashir," chanted women, who were dressed in white.
The delegation, due in Khartoum on Friday, will not meet the president, the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the court.
The United Nations says 300,000 people have died in the troubled western region after mostly ethnic rebels revolted against the Khartoum government in 2003.
Bashir's government denies the charges and says 10,000 people died.
Earlier, an airplane carrying the delegation suffered a technical hitch as it was about to take off, forcing the cancellation of a scheduled stop in the southern town of Wau.
© 2010 AFP