KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sudan’s foreign minister assured the U.N. Security Council Saturday that the government is committed to holding a referendum on southern independence that is expected to split the country in two.
Addressing Security Council members wrapping up a fact-finding trip to Sudan and Uganda, Ali Karti said the government's sole condition was no outside interference in the referendum.
“We are fully committed to holding the referendum on time,” Karti told the visiting members of the Council, the U.N.’s most powerful arm. “We want it on time, but it must be arranged properly. ... We do not want any interference in the referendum, this is the only condition.”
Underlining the tensions surrounding the vote, clashes erupted between southern pro-secession demonstrators and pro-unity northerners staging a rally in Khartoum, witnesses said. Some 70 southerners were arrested, and at least five people were wounded, according to the witnesses.
Preparations for the Jan. 9 referendum have proceeded haltingly amid political and logistical obstacles, and the southerners have accused the northerners of stalling, warning of violence if the vote is delayed.
The referendum is required by a 2005 peace agreement that ended the 21-year civil war between Sudan’ss predominantly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the largely Christian-animist south.
The vote is open to all southerners whether they live in the north or the south, but determining who is eligible to vote has also been a source of tension.
Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the U.N., told reporters Saturday that the Council wants to see a concerted push to resolve the many “key outstanding issues,” such as funding and citizenship, before a vote can be held.
“The timetable is now extremely tight,” he said, but added that the Council still believes it is “doable.”
On Saturday, as the Security Council members prepared to return to New York, its members also met with international humanitarian workers and U.N. officials and other people seeking to improve conditions in Darfur and avert disaster if new war breaks out over the fate of Southern Sudan.
The country, Africa’s largest, has been plagued by two major conflicts.
The war in Darfur began with a 2003 rebellion by rebel groups who accused the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of neglecting the vast desert region. The conflict has left up to 300,000 people dead and forced 2.7 million to flee their homes, according to U.N. figures.
Then there is the more than two-decade-old civil war between the north and south that ended with a 2005 peace agreement. Many worry about a new outbreak of north-south conflict in the wake of the referendum.