U.S. Bolsters Presence In Sudan Ahead Of Critical Vote

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President Obama wrapped up his three-day visit to the United Nations by trying to avert a new crisis in Africa's largest country. Voters in the southern part of Sudan are expected to vote for independence next year, and the U.S. and its partners are worried that preparations are falling way behind. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called it a time bomb of enormous consequences.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

President Obama wrapped up his three day visit to the United Nations by trying to avert a new crisis in Africa's largest country - Sudan. Voters in the southern part of Sudan are expected to vote for independence just over a hundred days from now. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. and its partners are worried that preparations are falling way behind.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It was a 2005 U.S.-mediated peace deal that ended a 20 year civil war between the mainly Muslim north of Sudan and Christian and animist rebels in the south.�Now there are fears that this fragile peace could unravel, unless both sides make up for lost time by figuring out a way to share oil revenue, demarcate borders and prepare for a vote that's likely to split the country into two.�President Obama told a high level meeting on the issue yesterday that the stakes are high.

President BARACK OBAMA: The fate of millions of people hangs in the balance. What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether a people who have endured too much war move towards peace or slip backwards into bloodshed.

KELEMEN: President Obama says the U.S. has beefed up its diplomatic presence in southern Sudan and is shuttling between the two to try to make sure the vote takes place on time in January.�He says there's a lot of work to do and he laid out two paths for the government in Khartoum.

President OBAMA: One path, taken by those who flout their responsibilities and for whom there must be consequences: more pressure and deeper isolation.�The other path is taken by leaders who fulfill their obligations and which would lead to improved relations between the United States and Sudan, including supporting agricultural development for all Sudanese, expanding trade and investment, and exchanging ambassadors, and eventually working to lift sanctions - if Sudanese leaders fulfill their obligations.

Sudan's vice president, Ali Osman Taha, says he thinks the U.S. should already be taking his country off terrorism blacklists and removing other sanctions.�He complains the international community is giving Khartoum mixed signals, calling for peace while also demonizing Sudan.

Vice President ALI OSMAN TAHA (Sudan): Attempts to undermine the sovereignty of the state serve to create a climate of mistrust between all the parties involved in writing Sudan's future.�Needless to say, we need the full cooperation of the international community rather than its antagonism if lasting peace in my country is to become a feasible hope.

KELEMEN: Taha told the meeting at the U.N. that the north is committed to implementing the peace deal it signed and will accept the outcome of the independence vote. First Vice President Salva Kiir, who represents the South, says polls show Southerners will vote to separate.

First Vice President SALVA KIIR (Sudan): We are doing all we can to ensure that the referenda take place as scheduled.�We are also cognizant that any delays risk a return to instability and violence of a massive scale.

KELEMEN: He describes the contested border region of Abyei as one potential flashpoint.

There is yet another complicating factor.�Sudan's president has been indicted on charges of genocide for the war in Darfur in the west of Sudan.�The African Union wants that case delayed, as�Malawi's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, explained in a speech to the general assembly earlier this week.

President BINGU WA MUTHARIKA (Malawi): African countries are concerned that while efforts to secure lasting peace in Sudan are ongoing, the international criminal court seems to push for a pound of flesh by insisting on arresting President Omar Hassan al Bashir.

KELEMEN: He argues this could polarize the parties in Sudan - a concern echoed by Sudan's vice president, who was representing his country at the U.N. instead of Bashir because of arrest warrant. Human rights activists, though, say there can be no peace in Darfur or South Sudan without justice and pressure on President Bashir.�

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

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