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Sudanese Envoy Warns of War if Referendum Goes Ahead in Abyei

Sudan's U.N. ambassador is warning the country could slip back into civil war if a referendum goes ahead in the oil-rich Abyei region in January without consent from Khartoum. Meanwhile, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said more international troops will not be able to prevent a return to war, only a political settlement could accomplish that.

Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman told the U.N. Security Council that his government is committed to holding a credible, impartial and transparent referendum on whether the south will secede from the north. "The referendum is not an end in itself but a means leading us to buttressing peace, stability and ideal co-existence. Not to war, which we never accepted willingly. We accepted self-determination with a view to ending war once and for all," he said.

In the oil-rich Abyei region, there are still numerous issues to settle before the vote, including who is actually eligible to cast a ballot. Ambassador Osman warned these issues must be resolved or conflict could erupt. "It is evident that any attempt to conduct [the] plebiscite before achieving [an] acceptable settlement by the two parties will mean only returning to war," he said.

When the Security Council visited South Sudan earlier this month, President Salva Kiir asked for more U.N. troops to patrol the border area between north and south to prevent violence during the referendum.

Briefing the Security Council, U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the United Nations is considering several options, including increasing peacekeepers from the U.N. mission, known as UNMIS, in high-risk zones along the border, especially in traditional migration zones. "An option could be to redeploy to the border troops based in other areas of south Sudan. This, however, would weaken UNMIS's capacity to assist in the preparations for the referendum and to provide security for the process. Another option would be to request an increase in the number of authorized troops, and to deploy additional contingents near identified zones - those that are identified as sensitive," he said.

The United Nations has 10,000 troops in south Sudan, but Le Roy warned that with even more peacekeepers, UNMIS could not prevent or contain a clash between the armies of north and south, and he instead urged progress on political talks to resolve outstanding issues.

In his latest report to the Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his deep concern over election preparations being behind schedule.

The votes scheduled for January 9 on Abyei and southern independence are key parts of the 2005 peace agreement that ended Sudan's two-decade-long north-south civil war.