Sudan passes law on southern independence vote

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- Parliament passes referendum law

- Analysts see separation as almost inevitable

By Khaled Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Sudan's parliament passed a long-disputed law governing a southern vote on independence on Tuesday, defusing a political crisis after months of wrangling between the north-south coalition government partners.

Analysts believe that the referendum in January 2011 will almost inevitably result in southern Sudan voting to separate from the north, with which it fought a civil war that cost the lives of two million people.

Delays in implementing the 2005 peace deal that capped more than two decades of conflict pushed the former foes into a political collision over the law.

Analysts warn that lingering distrust between the two sides could bring about a resumption of hostilities with the potential to destabilise much of east Africa.

"This law is not a law of separation for south Sudan but is a law for the referendum. We all need to unite Sudan and work towards unity," said deputy speaker Atem Garang of the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

"This law has given southerners who came to the north fleeing the war a chance to vote," said top National Congress Party official Ibrahim Ghandour.

Last week the dominant Islamist NCP forced through an amended version of the law despite a walkout by the SPLM, but quickly agreed to review the bill after criticism from Washington.

The law passed on Tuesday states southerners living in the north can vote there unless they were born before Jan. 1, 1956. Those born before 1956 would need to register and vote in the south.

Some 60 percent of south Sudanese voters need to turn out for the referendum to be valid and a simple majority of 51 percent must vote for either unity or independence.

Sudan analysts warn that any hint of meddling in the referendum would force the south to unilaterally secede and likely prompt a return to war.

Both the NCP and the SPLM say they do not want a return to the bitter conflict over ideology, ethnicity and religion, which ruined the budding oil producing nation's economy and drove 4 million people from their homes.

The International Crisis Group think tank's Africa director, Francois Grignon, said a southern vote for independence was "almost certain", a sentiment echoed by many southerners.

But many fear with the referendum just one year away there has been little planning for separation by either the Sudanese or the international community with many potential flashpoints still left unresolved.

The north-south border, along which many of Sudan's oil fields lie, has still not been drawn and oil-rich Abyei's status, as well as that of two other central states, is still not clear.

Abyei will vote on whether to join the south or not and the law outlining that referendum is due before parliament later on Tuesday.

Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states are to hold "popular consultations" on their status and the SPLM wants parliament to pass that law before it ends its session on Wednesday. (Writing by Opheera McDoom; editing by Giles Elgood

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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