South Sudan leader: Referendum will be on time, even if north-south border isn't drawn by then

CAIRO (AP) — The head of southern Sudan's main political party said the crucial referendum on whether the region is to split from the north will be held on time, even if the disputed north-south border isn't drawn by then.

Pagan Amum of the southern Sudan's People Liberation Movement insisted in comments to The Associated Press on Thursday that the secession vote is not conditional on border demarcation. The north's ruling party, led by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, has insisted the January referendum not take place until the entire border has been agreed on.

Much of the boundary between the oil-rich south and the northern, Muslim-dominated government is undefined and contested — mainly because of the region's richness in resources.

The two parties sought international arbitration to settle border disputes in the oil-rich area of Abyei, but the border has yet to be delineated on the ground.

The referendum is part of the internationally sponsored 2005 peace agreement that ended more than 20 years of civil war between the north and the south, which left 2 million people dead and more than twice that number displaced. The conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, which began in 2003, is separate from the north-south war.

The peace deal also envisioned delineating the disputed boundary. Just five months ahead of the balloting, the former rivals are still working out the details of how to conduct the vote and post-referendum arrangements.

Concerns are rising that mistrust between the northern and southern governments could affect the chances of a free and fair vote or derail it altogether. There are also concerns the Khartoum government is stalling to avoid the south's secession.

Amum told the AP that in talks this week in Cairo, each side reiterated its commitment to holding the referendum by January 9.

"The referendum will take place," Amum said. The chief of the referendum commission "has made it very clear that the vote in the referendum is not conditional to demarcation of the border."

Experts believe southerners are inclined to vote for independence, but many worry what the north could do to avoid losing the oil-rich south.

Egypt hosted a round of talks between the two sides this week. Negotiations on post-referendum arrangements, sponsored by the African Union, were launched last month and are due to resume this weekend.

Amum said these negotiations are crucial to avoid re-igniting an armed conflict.

"I really don't think violence is inevitable," he said.

In the southern capital, Juba, a spokesman for the southern Sudan's army said Friday that authorities collected about 30,000 weapons as part of a push to remove weapons from civilian hands and quell insecurity ahead of the vote.

Spokesman Malaak Ayuen Ajok of the Sudan People's Liberation Army said the weapons included Kalashnikov and G3 assault rifles — arms he said that are often used by the northern Sudanese army.

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Associated Press Writer Maggie Fick in Juba, Sudan, contributed to this report.