Southern Sudan Says It's Ready to Reach Accord Over Disputed Abyei Region

Southern Sudan’s leaders are ready to reach an agreement with the government in the north to resolve a dispute over control of the Abyei border region without holding a referendum planned for the area, a senior official said.

Talks mediated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki in Ethiopia this month failed to end a dispute between President Umar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which governs the south, on who is eligible to vote in Abyei.

If a referendum on whether Abyei will join the north or the south can’t be held as scheduled on Jan. 9, the region may be transferred to Southern Sudan by presidential decree as part of a broader deal, said SPLM Secretary-General Pagan Amum. He accused al-Bashir’s government of holding Abyei “hostage.”

“We are ready to put together the package of the ransom and give it to them,” he told reporters today in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. “They have told us that they want something from us, and they want something from the Americans.”

Amum didn’t provide further details on what concessions Southern Sudan was prepared to make. Fathy Sheila, a spokesman for al-Bashir’s ruling National Party Congress in Khartoum, didn’t answer calls seeking comment.

Sudan, which is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, has been subject to U.S. economic sanctions since 1997. The area borders Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in Africa.

U.S. Relations

Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. is ready to improve relations with Sudan if al-Bashir’s government ensures a smooth referendum in Southern Sudan.

The U.S. may penalize Sudan if it fails to work for a peaceful vote in the oil-producing region, Kerry told reporters in Khartoum on Oct. 22. The U.S. eased its sanctions on Sudan on Oct. 20, allowing the export of farming equipment to Africa’s largest country by landmass.

Sudan’s daily output of 490,000 barrels a day makes it sub- Saharan Africa’s third-largest crude producer, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Most of Sudan’s oil is pumped in Southern Sudan.

Abyei’s referendum was scheduled to be held on the same day that Southern Sudan votes on whether to secede from Sudan and form an independent nation. The plebiscites are key components of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and the south, where Christianity and traditional beliefs dominate. About 2 million people died in the conflict.

Talks Delayed

Talks between the NCP and the SPLM on preparations for the vote in Abyei, which were scheduled to resume on Oct. 27 in Addis Ababa, have been delayed indefinitely, Sudan’s state-run SUNA news agency reported yesterday, citing Mbeki.

The next round of negotiations will seek to resolve the impasse over Abyei in a wide agreement that addresses other outstanding issues between the two sides, such as the stalled demarcation of Sudan’s north-south border, said Amum.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague last year ruled that Abyei is controlled by the Ngok Dinka people, who see themselves as southerners. The Misseriya people, who back the north, rejected the ruling out of fear they won’t be able to graze their cattle in Abyei during the dry season, especially if Southern Sudan secedes.

Disputes between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya erupted in violence in 2008, killing 89 people and displacing 90,000, according the United Nations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Boswell in Juba via Johannesburg at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin in Johannesburg at asguazzin@bloomberg.net.

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