EL-FASHER, Sudan – Southern Sudan's president told members of the U.N. Security Council that if the Khartoum-based north tries to delay a January independence referendum the south will hold the vote on its own, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said Thursday.
Susan Rice said the comments from President Salva Kiir came during a two-hour meeting late Wednesday with council members. Southern Sudan contends that northern Sudanese officials are intentionally delaying preparations for the southern region's Jan. 9 independence referendum, but Kiir's comments could be seen as provocative by the north.
The Security Council is touring Sudan on a fact-finding trip before the January vote amid worries that the referendum could lead to a new outbreak of north-south war. The regions ended a 21-year civil war in 2005 with the signing of a peace accord — the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA — that guaranteed January's independence vote.
"We have come to Sudan to underscore that the Security Council and the international community are united in its determination to support the parties to conduct on time, peaceful, and credible referenda consistent with the terms of the CPA," said Rice.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the Security Council is telling Sudan's leaders that the council is united behind pressing both parties to make the necessary preparations and to allow the January vote to take place on time and in a credible manner.
Hundreds of protesters greeted the Security Council when they landed in the western region of Darfur later on Thursday. Some chanted "Down with the USA!" or chanted slogans against the U.S. and in support of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir.
The Security Council was escorted out of the airport by U.N. police in a heavily armed convoy.
Darfur has seen mass atrocities over the last decade, killings that have resulted in the International Criminal Court filing charges of genocide against al-Bashir. The council is not meeting with al-Bashir because of the charges.
Earlier in the day in Southern Sudan, the council observed police training exercises. The region has much work to do if it is to become the world's newest nation next year. Diplomatic relations with the world community must be established, a new currency created, and agreements made with north Sudan over oil rights and the standings of past international treaties.
Rice acknowledged the work ahead.
"Is any state ready to be born out of whole cloth?" she asked. "All there was was a half kilometer (1 mile) of paved road in 2005" in the Southern Sudan capital of Juba.
The aid group Oxfam said in a statement that it hopes the Security Council will focus on resolving outstanding issues over the south's independence vote. Preparations for the vote are well behind schedule. The north-south border hasn't been demarcated and there is little agreement on who is eligible to vote, Oxfam said.
"The longer uncertainty drags on, the more likely violence could flare up. People here are waiting eagerly for the chance to decide their future and expectations are extremely high," said Charlotte Scawen, acting head of Oxfam in Southern Sudan.
The Southern Sudan Police Service is training 5,400 officers to take part in a force that will provide security during the vote. The newly trained police force could prove necessary if violence flares during over the vote.
The U.S. State Department has provided helmets, shields and thick black body armor for the officers, some of whom are studying specialized skills like crowd control, border policing and VIP protection.
When training began in January there were 6,000 police recruits. That number has dropped by 10 percent in part because of the "difficult circumstances" at the training site, said Lt. Gen. Tito Acuil Madut, inspector general of the police. Officers bathe in the Nile River, cook on open fires and live in poor sanitary conditions, he said.
The young officers were in good spirits during the Security Council's visit.
Anthony Atugo, 21, from the town of Wau, said he felt he was fulfilling his duty to the country by serving in the police.
"I want my country to be in freedom," he said.
Associated Press reporter Maggie Fick contributed from Rajaf, Sudan.