JUBA, Sudan – JUBA, Sudan (AP) — A northern Sudan party official said Saturday the commission organizing the crucial southern independence referendum has requested the vote be delayed on technical grounds, while the chief negotiator for the south insisted that is not an option.
Only five months remain until the referendum that could split Africa's largest country in two. But preparations have fallen far behind due to a deadlock between Sudan's north and south over the appointment of the secretary-general of the referendum commission.
Fathi Sheila, spokesman for the northern National Congress Party headed by President Omar al-Bashir, said the commission in charge of organizing the vote has asked the two parties to approve a delay. He would not say by how long the commission wanted the vote pushed back.
"The commission doesn't see that it practically has enough time" to prepare for the referendum expected in January. "The two parties have to agree to a delay."
The chief negotiator for Southern Sudan on the upcoming independence referendum, meanwhile, said Saturday that postponement of the vote is not an option despite calls from the referendum commission. He said that his party would pursue "other options" instead of accepting a delay.
Pagan Amum, Secretary General of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement, said in an interview that his party would continue to engage the north to overcome obstacles to the scheduled Jan. 9 vote.
But Amum said that if the referendum "process is obstructed, (there) will not be postponement."
Instead, he said the SPLM would "look for other mechanisms than the referendum," and he cited a provision in the internationally brokered 2005 accord that ended decades of north-south civil war that killed more than 2 million people and called for the southern referendum.
The 2005 peace deal has been tested a number of times, and violence has flared on a limited scale along border areas.
In 2007, the southern ministers walked out of the government in protest of what they consider Khartoum's foot-dragging in implementing key points of the deal. It took two months to resolve the differences after the SPLM accused the northern government of not sharing the country's oil wealth, not pulling troops out of southern Sudan, and remilitarizing contested border zones where the main oil reserves are located.
Amum declined to discuss the possibility of a military response by his party's former guerrilla movement, now the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army. He said that his party will "choose the mechanism through which people will express their vote" because "we want to ensure that there is peace, no war."
Tensions are rising over the stalled preparations for the southern vote, and the SPLM has suggested that the northern government is deliberately delaying the process to negatively impact or even derail the referendum.
The first official round of negotiations between the north and south on post-referendum arrangements took place in Khartoum over the last week.
Amum told reporters in the southern capital on Friday that talks on issues such as wealth sharing are set to resume after one week.
A central dispute between the northern National Congress Party and southern SPLM is whether the contested, 1,300-mile (2,100 kilometer) border must be demarcated before the referendum. Voter registration also still needs to take place and it's not yet clear if southerners living in the north can cast ballots.
Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.