Sudan

U.S. criticizes Sudan referendum bill

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* U.S. says Khartoum 'reneged' on referendum conditions

* Urges immediate steps to improve electoral environment

* Comprehensive peace deal of 2005 seen shaky (Adds new meetings planned in 2010)

By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON, Dec 23 (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday accused Sudan's ruling party of undermining the fragile peace process, a sign that U.S. offers of increased engagement with Khartoum are failing to bring results.

The State Department said the ruling National Congress Party, which dominates the north, had reneged on a deal setting conditions for a January 2011 independence vote in the oil-rich south.

"Reneging on the agreement ... undermines the peace process, jeopardizes Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) implementation and risks sparking renewed hostilities between the parties," the department said in a statement.

It also expressed deep concern about Sudan's revised national security act, which it said contained no new measures for accountability of the security services ahead of the independence vote and a separate national election next year.

"For elections to be credible, it is incumbent on the regime to demonstrate in word and deed that this law will not be used to arrest and detain political opponents," the statement said.

The Obama administration renewed economic sanctions on Khartoum in October but also offered new incentives to end violence in Darfur and the semi-autonomous south.

While critics said the new policy was not tough enough, U.S. officials stressed there would be significant consequences if Khartoum failed to make democratic changes.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. officials would confer with Sudan's various factions in early 2010 with a view to ensuring electoral preparations remain viable.

"We continue to have steady and significant dialogue with all of the parties in Sudan precisely to keep this on track," Crowley said.

RETURN TO WAR?

In the latest sign of trouble, Sudan's parliament on Tuesday approved a bill setting conditions for the January 2011 referendum on southern independence, despite a walkout by the south's dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

According to the bill, 60 percent of the southern Sudanese electorate will have to turn out to make the referendum legitimate. South Sudan will split from the north if more than half of voters choose independence.

But the SPLM walked out before the vote, criticizing one of the bill's articles that allowed South Sudanese living in the north to register and vote.

Analysts warn the south could return to war if there is any sign Khartoum will not go through with the vote and that would have a devastating impact on the country, its oil industry and stability in the region.

The State Department said the National Congress Party had reneged on an earlier deal with the SPLM on the wording of the bill, which it said should be returned to its original state before becoming law.

South Sudan secured the independence vote as part of a 2005 peace accord that ended two decades of civil war with the north that killed 2 million people.

Many southerners, embittered by years of bloodshed, are thought to favor independence. SPLM leaders have been making increasingly separatist public comments in recent months.

Secession would mean Khartoum would lose control of most of the country's proven oil reserves, although the landlocked south is dependent on northern pipelines to carry its oil to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. (Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by David Alexander and Mohammad Zargham)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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