Clinton presses Sudan government to speed up preparations for independence vote by south

NEW YORK (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is urging Sudanese authorities to make up for lost time in preparing for an independence referendum early next year for the Southern Sudan.

On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Clinton met Tuesday with Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha to impress upon him the need for a well-organized and peaceful vote in January. With just over 100 days until the referendum, preparations are far behind schedule.

There are also fears that a vote splitting the south and north will re-ignite a bloody civil war that ended in 2005.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday appointed a panel to monitor the upcoming vote, said his spokesman Martin Nesirky. Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa will head the panel that also includes former Portuguese Foreign Minister Antonio Monteiro, and Nepal's former elections commission chairman Bhojraj Pokharel.

Panel members will periodically visit Sudan ahead of the vote to monitor preparations and consult with groups involved in the process, including election officials, civil society and observer groups, Nesirky said.

Clinton's talks with Taha come ahead of a high-level U.N. session on Sudan that President Barack Obama will attend on Friday. Taha and the President of southern Sudan Salva Kiir will also participate in the meeting.

In the meeting with Taha, Clinton "reinforced steps Sudan needs to take" on implementing the peace deal that ended the war, including holding the referendum, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

He said taking those steps "could lead to better relations" between Sudan and the U.S. Sudan is currently designated a "state sponsor of terrorism" and subject to U.S. sanctions.

Crowley said Clinton also raised the Sudan issue in meetings on Tuesday with Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Kosa and the Emir of Qatar.

Sudan activists have warned that urgent international diplomatic intervention is the only way to prevent renewed civil war.

Underscoring the concern, Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain and Norway released a letter Tuesday that they sent to Taha and Kiir last week appealing to them "to take swift action to ensure" a peaceful vote that recognizes the will of the people.

"There remains an enormous amount to be done and work must be accelerated to make up for lost time," they said in the letter.

Southern Sudan, which is predominantly animist and Christian, is scheduled to vote on independence Jan. 9. But the group charged with organizing the vote has not yet set a date for voter registration.

The Obama administration has said it is "inevitable" the south will declare independence. Given the south's substantial known oil resources, many worry that the predominantly Muslim north will find it difficult to accept an independent south.