Delegations from north and south Sudan are set to hold crucial meetings in Addis Ababa on Monday in an attempt to break a deadlock over the oil-rich Abyei region. The third party in the talks - the United States - is pressing the two sides to reach an agreement that would allow Abyei to decide whether it wants to join the north or the south.
The negotiations bring together representatives from Sudan's ruling National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
The two sides held preliminary talks on Sunday night with President Obama's special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration, the veteran US diplomat and mediator Princeton Lyman, and their host, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
U.S. President Barack Obama met with Southern Sudan's President Salva Kir and Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha at the United Nations last month to lay the groundwork for the Addis Ababa talks.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up with telephone calls last week to Mr. Taha and Mr. Meles to stress the importance of settling the status of the Abyei -- an oil-rich region along the dividing line between north and south Sudan.
U.S. embassy spokesperson Alyson Grunder says the two sides are expected to be ready to resolve differences over the terms of a plebiscite to determine Abyei's allegiance if the south votes for independence in January's referendum.
"The referendum on Abyei is a critical element of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, so the special envoy and Ambassador Lyman are expecting that the parties are coming to Addis ready to reach a final agreement, so preparations for Abyei's referendum can move forward," she said.
Grunder says an agreement would clear the way for a vote on Abyei in little more than three months, at the same time that the south holds its independence referendum. "If the parties make key decisions, the Abyei area referendum commission can be appointed and be made operational. This commission has to approve the referendum budget and criteria so voter registration can take place, and the commission has to begin hiring and training poll workers so voter registration can begin in November," she said.
The deadlock centers on membership in Abyei's referendum commission and the question of demarcation, following threats of war by leaders of the nomadic Miseriya tribe.
The Miseriya, traditionally aligned with the north, are demanding the right to vote on Abyei's future, even though they migrate north with their animals for much of the year.
A Sudanese diplomat who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity said the talks are scheduled to run through Tuesday, but that they might be extended if no agreement is reached.