The United Nations is considering sending up to 2,000 more peacekeepers to southern Sudan to boost security around a vote on whether the South should secede from the North, UN envoys said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Western diplomats said that Khartoum had not yet consented to the proposal, which would increase the 10,000-strong UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) force to a maximum of 12,000 peacekeepers.
“We’re hoping they’ll agree to it soon,” a Security Council diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Other diplomats said that Khartoum is reluctant to agree the deployment of more peacekeepers in the South because it could be seen as a tacit acceptance of southern independence.
The plan, which would require official approval by the 15-nation Security Council, is a response to a request from the president of south Sudan, Salva Kiir, who asked council members to approve a UN-monitored buffer zone along the semi-autonomous south’s border with the north, Reuters reports.
Council diplomats and UN officials have said that it would be impossible to create a full-scale buffer zone along Sudan’s lengthy internal frontier.
UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy has said that it would be possible to augment UNMIS and boost its presence in hotspots along the border, such as the oil-rich Abyei region.
The move comes less than two months before a planned January 9 referendum on independence for the oil-producing South, preparations for which have lagged behind schedule.
As the plebiscite approaches, leaders of north and south Sudan have accused each other of building up troops in the border region. While the South is seen likely to vote for secession, the North would like to keep the country whole.
Diplomats said they hoped the presence of additional blue helmets along the border would reduce outbreaks of violence.
One Western diplomat said that if the plan was approved, it would take three to four months to get all of the 2,000 new peacekeepers on the ground. It was not immediately clear what countries the additional blue helmets would come from.
Highlighting the precarious security situation in Sudan as the plebiscite approaches, southern Sudan accused the northern army of carrying out an air strike on an army base in the South on Wednesday in an attempt to derail the vote.
Relations between north and south Sudan have been tense in the build-up to the referendum. Sudan’s economy depends on oil, mostly located in the South, and the Khartoum government does not want to lose an important source of revenue.
The referendum, along with a second plebiscite on whether the disputed Abyei region should join the South or stay with the North, were called for in a 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of north-south civil war.
Preparations for the Abyei referendum are even more behind schedule than for the southern independence vote.