UN opens first field office for Southern Sudan's January vote; 'referendum is real' UN says

MUNDRI, Sudan (AP) — The United Nations on Wednesday opened its first field office ahead of Southern Sudan's scheduled January referendum on independence.

The U.N. is expanding its presence across the vast, largely rural southern part of Sudan for the January vote, which is likely to lead to the breakup of Africa's largest country. The world body is opening offices in each of the region's 79 counties, some of which are accessible only by helicopter because of violence or heavy rain.

"The referendum is real," David Gressly, the top U.N. official in Southern Sudan said at the opening of the first county referendum base in Mundri West County in Western Equatoria, the south's lushest and greenest state. "Mechanics are starting to move forward and today is symbolic of that."

Dozens of U.N. offices are being built from scratch. Barbed wire, security lights, white tents, and a water tank are the main features of the bases, which are being constructed hastily given the quickly approaching vote.

With just over four months until the Jan. 9 referendum, concerns are rising that the vote could be delayed. Voter registration and other key preparations have not begun due to political deadlock between officials from the south and the Khartoum-based north.

"Obviously there are a lot of decisions pending," Gressly said. "But I think it would be wrong to do anything but move ahead."

During nationwide elections in April, the U.N. transported ballot boxes by air to remote areas of the south. U.N. staff also worked with election officials in southern state capitals to train polling staff.

For the referendum vote, the U.N. will be supporting officials at the county level. Gressly sees this shift as a sign of the deeper investment the U.N. is making at the request of Sudanese leaders.

At the first office's launch Wednesday, local officials and government authorities from Juba urged citizens to support the U.N.'s work in holding the referendum peacefully and on time.

Officials from the south and north still haven't agreed on where a north-south border will lie, nor have they decided how to share key resources such as the country's oil wealth, most of which lies in the south.

The south and north ended a more than two-decade civil war in 2005 with the signing of a peace accord that called for the south to hold a referendum on independence.