Juba, Sudan (AFP) Oct 6, 2010
Chanting crowds greeted UN Security Council envoys on Wednesday in south Sudan which wants to become the world's newest nation while international leaders highlighted the risk of renewed conflict.
Even Hollywood star George Clooney is in south Sudan raising his fears of "war" ahead of the January 9 referendum on whether it should break away from the Khartoum-controlled north.
A UN Security Council delegation arrived in the south Sudan regional capital of Juba to reinforce its message that the referendum must be held on time and in peaceful conditions.
Preparations for dual votes in south Sudan and the small oil-rich district of Abyei on the north-south border are way behind schedule. The Sudanese government's announcement that voter registration will start on November 14 failed to dispel fears that the votes will be held up.
Thousands of children and adults lined the streets of Juba for the arrival of the UN Security Council ambassadors as they started a four-day trip to Sudan to highlight the importance of the vote.
"The Referendum Must Be Held On Time," said banners held up by the crowds, who chanted songs, while some beat out rhythms on the ground with spears.
Ambassadors from Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and 10 other Security Council nations were warmly greeted by Salva Kiir, the vice president of Sudan and leader of the administration that wants to break away.
Kiir has called the vote date "sacrosanct" and warned of the risk of conflict if it is delayed.
The UN ambassadors say their message to Sudanese on this mission is to make sure that the January 9 votes are held on time, in peace and has a credible result.
The referendums in south Sudan and Abyei were a centrepiece of a 2005 accord which ended two decades of civil war in which about two million people died.
Some Western governments fear that if the vote is delayed, Kiir's former rebel movement could declare unilateral independence, sparking a new conflict.
The UN ambassadors arrived from Uganda where they held talks with President Yoweri Museveni, who pledged his support for efforts to make sure the vote is peaceful. Uganda has in the past been a strong supporter of Sudan's southern rebels.
The ambassadors are to inspect UN training facilities for south Sudanese police on Thursday before going on to Darfur where the rumbling conflict since 2003 is causing new concern.
Ethnic minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime prompting a scorched earth response that sparked genocide charges from the International Crimiminal Court against President Omar al-Bashir, its first ever against a sitting head of state.
A Security Council spokesman said the envoys would not meet the Sudanese president.
Ocean's Eleven star Clooney toured south Sudan with US network NBC to highlight mounting Western fears about the peace process.
Clooney "fears a war is coming here," NBC journalist Ann Curry said in a Twitter release.
"If you knew a tsunami was coming ... what would you do to save people?" she quoted Clooney as saying. The actor has visited a mass grave and spoken to tribal leaders, she added.
In New York, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said "handled properly, the January ballot could help build a future that improves the lives of all Sudanese. Handled poorly, it could spark conflict with consequences across Africa and beyond."
Sudan announced this week that voter registration for the southern referendum would start on November 14 but admitted that the obstacles ahead remain formidable.
"The timeframe is a really big problem," said Chan Reec, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission. He acknowledged that polling may have to be delayed but insisted that the vote would go ahead.
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