U.S. Diplomats Fan Out Over Sudan Ahead Of Vote

The United States is sounding optimistic about a historic vote taking place in Sudan this weekend. Southerners are to decide whether they want to secede from the North. It is a culmination of a five-year-long peace process that the U.S. has helped oversee. American diplomats have spread out over South Sudan to make sure the vote goes smoothly.

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The Obama administration is sounding upbeat about a crucial vote taking place in Sudan starting this weekend. People in the south of Sudan are deciding whether they want to secede.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the U.S. is diplomatically invested in this vote.

MICHELE KELEMEN: As one of the countries that helped broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan, officials say the U.S. is determined to see this peace process through. The U.S. quadrupled the diplomats it has in South Sudan and has envoys shuttling between the north and south.

Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson says he's more optimistic after Sudan's president visited the south this week and vowed to accept the outcome of the vote.

Mr. JOHNNIE CARSON (Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of African Affairs): We hope that the north will live up to those very promising statements and that we are about to see the end of what has been a really enormously successful diplomatic effort to end what had been 20 years of violence and conflict between the north and the south.

KELEMEN: But even if the vote does go smoothly, there are still many unresolved questions from borders to oil sharing, and there's likely to be a new nation to support. Carson says the U.S. is ready to help.

Mr. CARSON: If the people of Southern Sudan choose to vote for peace, that we will also, as a country, help that new nation to succeed, get on its feet economically and politically.

KELEMEN: A former U.S. envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, says he's been amazed at the changes in the past few years in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Roads have been paved and hotels have sprouted up. He's more concerned about the stability in the north after the vote if the Islamist government there continues repressive policies against other marginalized groups.

Mr. ANDREW NATSIOS (Georgetown University): The rebels in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, the Beja people in the Red Sea province, these provinces are all areas of disaffection to the central government, and how the government deals with this is going to determine whether or not the country becomes a failed state.

KELEMEN: Natsios - now at Georgetown University - thinks the international criminal court indictment against President Omar al-Bashir for crimes in Darfur complicates matters, but he says it was a good sign that Bashir went to South Sudan. It may have helped, Natsios says, that the Obama administration offered Bashir's National Congress Party a path toward normal ties.

Mr. NATSIOS: He sees that there's a potential for a rapprochement with the West. I think the incentive package that the administration has presented to him is changing the calculations of the NCP. I could be wrong, but there's evidence of it. And he may realize that the path that they've been on all these years simply does not work.

KELEMEN: Assistant Secretary of State Carson says a successful independence referendum in the south will bring Khartoum one step closer on the path toward normalized ties with Washington.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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