Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday the United Nations hopes to boost the number of peacekeepers in Sudan amid fears that Africa’s largest country by area could be headed for a new civil war.
Voter registration began on Monday for a January 2011 referendum on whether oil-producing southern Sudan should secede from the north.
The plebiscite is the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south conflict — Africa’s longest civil war that was fought over ethnicity, religion, ideology and oil and killed 2 million people. Analysts and diplomats expect the south to choose independence from Khartoum, reports Reuters.
“We are working with both parties (north and south) on options for a possible augmentation of additional UN troops to increase referendum and post-referendum security,” Ban told a special UN Security Council debate on Sudan chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Ban said the increase in the 10,000-strong force that monitors compliance with the 2005 peace deal would also be to increase its capacity to “verify and monitor possible cease-fire violations and to protect civilians.”
It was not immediately clear how many troops the world body could muster before the January 9 referendum, although UN officials told Reuters it would likely be in the hundreds.
“It will not be enough to prevent the return to war should widespread hostilities erupt,” Ban said.
Any troop increase will require Security Council approval.
South Sudan had asked the council to approve a full-scale UN-monitored buffer zone across the entire north-south border, but council diplomats said UNMIS will only be able to offer a strengthened presence in hotspots along the frontier.
SOUTH PREDICTS ON-TIME REFERENDUM
Preparations for the southern vote, as well as a separate plebiscite on whether the oil-rich Abyei region should remain under Khartoum or join the south, are behind schedule. Although both the north and south say they do not want war, analysts fear that a delay of the southern vote could lead to violence.
Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement said, “All signs point to the fact that the people of southern Sudan are likely to vote for independence in January,” he said.
“We call on the council and on all UN member states to respect the choice of the people of southern Sudan,” he said.
Amum was optimistic about the voter registration process now under way. “The turnout was impressive and peaceful. This is a clear sign that the southern Sudan referendum will take place on time on January 9, 2011,” he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated that the United States was prepared to take steps to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and normalize relations with Khartoum if it “chooses the path of peace.”
But she also had a warning for Khartoum, which critics have charged is reluctant to accept the loss of its oil-rich soil. “If it chooses conflict, the government of Sudan will face consequences in the forms of additional pressure and deeper isolation,” she told the 15-nation council.
Clinton repeated that Washington can ease its sanctions against Khartoum and help work on ways to ease its national debt “consistent with international debt relief practices.”
Sudan has previously called for its nearly $38 billion in debt to be forgiven to strengthen prospects for peace. Most of that debt is in arrears, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The Security Council issued a statement calling for an end to illegal weapons transfers throughout Sudan, including to the conflict-torn Darfur region where a UN arms embargo has been in place since 2005. It also suggested Khartoum has been slow in funding the South Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC).
Khartoum’s foreign minister, Ali Karti, denied Sudan had been withholding funds. “The government of the Sudan honored its commitments as agreed,” he said.