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Clinton Says Sudan Peace Efforts at 'Critical Juncture'

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday Sudan is at a critical juncture as parties prepare for elections in April that could consolidate peace between north and south. U.S. envoy for Sudan Scott Gration plans Sudan-related travel in Africa later this month and a pre-election visit to Sudan in February.

In a statement marking this week's fifth anniversary of Sudan's north-south peace accord, Clinton credited both sides for the progress in the implementation process thus far but said it is not yet enough to secure lasting peace.

Appearing alongside the administration's Sudan envoy Scott Gration, Clinton said the parties now face a choice between reverting back to a "dark era of conflict" or moving forward together toward a lasting peace. "The parties of Sudan cannot afford to delay, and there can be no backtracking on agreements already reached. The risks are too serious - renewed conflict between north and south would prolong human suffering and threaten stability and peace throughout the greater region. Because Sudan is at a critical juncture after almost a half-century of conflict, we hold all parties accountable if progress is impeded," she said.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord or CPA provides for Sudan's first national elections in 24 years to be held in April, and a referendum in the mostly-Christian and animist southern region early next year on whether it will break away from the Muslim-led Khartoum government and become fully independent.

Clinton urged the ruling National Congress Party government in Khartoum to safeguard freedoms of speech and assembly in the run-up to the April voting, and suspend elements of existing public order laws incompatible with free elections.

She said strong leadership is required on both sides and said the former southern Sudan rebel movement, the SPLM, must tackle growing ethnic and tribal violence in the vast, oil-rich region.

"No matter the outcome of the referendum, southern Sudan must increase its institutional capacity and prepare to govern responsibly, whether as a semi autonomous region within Sudan or a newly independent nation. I've been tracking the increasing inter-ethnic and tribal violence in the south over the course of 2009. And I share the concerns raised by recent reports that highlight the death of more than 2,500 people and displacement of more than 350,000. These stark figures illustrate the need for the government of southern Sudan to improve governance and security," she said.

Clinton said implementing the CPA, and bringing peace to Sudan's troubled western Darfur region, "must be seen in tandem" and that the United States continues to push for full access to the area by aid groups and U.N. peacekeepers.

Sudan envoy Gration, a former U.S, Air Force general raised in Africa, said he will begin a pre-election diplomatic push later this month with visits to Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia for the January 31st African Union summit in Addis Ababa. He said he plans his next Sudan trip in mid-February with a focus on Darfur. "My focus will be on security in Darfur because I believe that if we can fix the security, the lawlessness, the banditry, the car-jackings, the hijackings - if we can get that hat kind of thing taken care of the rest of the issues that have to do with humanitarian access, eventual voluntarily return (of displaced persons) and the other issues that are looming out there can be taken care of. But they cannot be taken care of with the current situation that we have, where local rule of law is not sufficient, and where local criminal elements rule the day," he said.

Gration said while he will continue to engage officials of the Khartoum government, he will not interact with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who faces Darfur-related international war crimes charges.