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Northern, Southern Sudan Meet to Discuss Referendum

Leaders from northern and southern Sudan are meeting to plan for a peaceful transition after next year's referendum that will determine if the south becomes an independent state.

The two sides began the discussions Saturday in Khartoum. Southern negotiator Pagan Amum said the talks are an opportunity for the two sides to strengthen their sometimes bitter relations.

The semi-autonomous south is scheduled to hold a referendum January 9 on whether to become an independent state. The vote was a key part of the 2005 agreement ending Sudan's north-south civil war.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has called for unity, but says he will accept the south's decision. Key issues like border demarcation, water rights, and distribution of oil revenues must still be worked out.

The oil-rich Abyei region holds a separate referendum January 9 on whether to be part of the north or the south.

Supporters of southern Sudanese independence held a rally Friday marking six months until the referendum. Hundreds of people gathered in the regional capital, Juba, to chant slogans and wave banners calling for separation from northern Sudan.

Southern Sudanese officials have accused the Bashir government of trying to stir up violence ahead of the referendum.