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Crisis Group Says Sudan Border Dispute Complicating Peace Agreement

According to a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, stalled negotiations to define Sudan's north-south border are fueling mistrust and tension just five months before a referendum which could split the country in two.

On January 9th of next year, citizens of southern Sudan will vote in a referendum that could see the region split from the North and form an independent nation. The vote is widely expected to produce an independent South but chronic delays in preparation and stalled negotiations concerning post-referendum arrangements have cast doubts over the prospects for peace in the coming months.

One of the most critical issues is defining the actual border between the North and the South. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Sudan's civil war in 2005, called for a north-south border to be defined within six months. Five years later, negotiations have failed to produce a boundary accepted by both sides.

According to the report, the majority of the border has been agreed upon, but disagreements within Sudan's Technical Border Committee have produced five areas of contention and ground talks to a halt.

Public disputes over other regions have also stymied the implementation of the border and "poisoned" the atmosphere surrounding the deliberations.

The International Crisis Group warned that the uncertainty surrounding the border is now creeping into other issues regarding the completion of the Peace Agreement. The report said the uncertainty has left the border dangerously militarized, and the report's author, Zach Vertin, told VOA a lack of clarity was likely to affect critical negotiations over the region's oil.

"The fact that most of Sudan's oil lies along this border has further complicated the situation," says Vertin. "It has amplified the political and economic dimensions of border demarcation. Both the regimes rely heavily on oil so this has been particularly politicized."

Vertin said the uncertainty has heightened insecurity and anxiety among border communities and many observers fear a return to violence if negotiations fail to produce an adequate oil-sharing agreement.

There are also immediate concerns being raised about the referendum itself. While the government in Khartoum has expressed its commitment to hold the referendum on time, there is doubt that critical issues such as border demarcation can be settled in time for the poll.

But Vertin says the progress of the agreements should not necessarily jeopardize the referendum.

"Previously Khartoum had tried to use demarcation of the border as a means to delay the referendum, arguing that it was absolutely necessary to happen before," he adds. "Certainly if it can happen before that is ideal, but it does not need to be completed necessarily. The self determination vote will take place in January but that does not automatically equate to independence. It is more likely that there will be a period between January and the end of the Peace Agreement's interim period in July 2011 to work out remaining details."

But Vertin warned going into referendum without an agreement was not ideal. The report urges both parties to continue with negotiations but says a definitive border demarcation should not be a precondition for the referendum.

Border demarcation may be the least of the region's worries. Just five months before the vote, the commission which will administer the referendum has barely begun to function. Voter registration, which was to be completed in August, has not yet begun and many are skeptical the divided group will complete its task in time.