Delaying the Jan. 9 referendum on whether to divide Sudan into two countries would create instability and renew violence in the African nation, Sudanese First Vice President Salva Kiir, president of southern Sudan, warned Monday.
Residents of the contested oil-rich region Abyei also will decide whether they want to be part of the south if it secedes.
“Any delay or denial of the right of self-determination for the people of Abyei and southern Sudan risks a dangerous instability,” Mr. Kiir said, adding there is a “real risk of a return to violence on a massive scale” if the referendum does not proceed as scheduled.
“To us, the timing … is divine and sacred because it is the ultimate price of our sacrifices,” Mr. Kiir said at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The referendum is part of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to end a decades-long conflict between north and south Sudan.
The Obama administration has been urging all parties to conduct peaceful votes on time that reflect the will of the Sudanese people.
The U.S. special envoy, Scott Gration, told officials during a visit to Sudan this month that a range of consequences, including additional sanctions, would be deployed if the situation deteriorates or fails to make progress.
“We are committed to avoiding destabilization or delay, though ultimately the [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] parties must decide whether they will choose the path of peace or a return to conflict,” a senior U.S. administration official said on the condition of anonymity while citing the sensitive nature of the matter.
Jon Temin, a Sudan specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the referendum can be held on time, “but there is almost no room left for additional delays.”
“The organizers of the referendum need to show a real sense of urgency in their work, as the technical and logistical challenges to holding a referendum in such an underdeveloped region are significant,” Mr. Temin said.
He added that preparations for the Abyei referendum were well behind schedule.
He opposed linking the vote to the resolution of post-referendum issues that include the question of borders, citizenship and oil.