The United States said Thursday southern Sudan is entitled to a referendum vote early next year on whether to become independent. Preparations for the vote, planned for January 9, have been slowed by disputes over various issues including a prospective border between north and south Sudan.
The State Department says southern Sudan is entitled to the referendum under the 2005 north-south peace accord but it says it much prefers that the key issue of borders be settled before the January vote.
The comments here came after the leader of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party was quoted as saying Thursday the referendum cannot be held until the border is demarcated, and that the absence of a border deal could otherwise produce another north-south conflict.
U.S. special envoy for Sudan Scott Gration is completing a two-week mission to the region aimed at clearing away referendum problem issues.
At a news briefing Thursday, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said there is a lot of work still to be done to create conditions for a successful referendum.
"Border demarcation is one of those issues," said P.J. Crowley. "We've been working hard on that for some time. We hope it can be resolved before the referendum. But south Sudan is entitled to a referendum in January, and we hope that it will happen on schedule."
The border dispute centers on the oil-rich Abyei region, which is to have a separate referendum on whether to be part of the north or the south, assuming the south votes for independence.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir says he wants Sudan to remain unified but has said he will accept the south's decision.
But there is skepticism about his intentions from among others Bush administration chief Africa diplomat Jendayi Frazer, who warned in a commentary last week of tricks and delay tactics by the ruling party in Khartoum.
Spokesman Crowley appealed for cooperation by Khartoum authorities.
"Rather than trying to put conditions on the referendum, it would be far better for Sudan to cooperate fully, resolve the issues," he said. "And there are a number of them that need to be resolved prior to January. But we believe that these issues can be satisfactorily addressed so that the referendum can happen in January as planned."
U.S. Sudan envoy Gration, who was en route back to Washington late Thursday, attended this week's African Union summit in Kampala after stops in Khartoum, the southern Sudanese regional capital Juba, and Darfur. He also stopped in the Gulf state of Qatar, which has sponsored Darfur peace contacts.