Officials in Sudan said Wednesday that early results for a referendum on splitting the country in two show that more than 98 percent of voters in and near the south's capital of Juba voted for independence from the north.
The referendum panel for Central Equatoria State posted its results for the weeklong voting, which ended Saturday, Associated Press reported. Southern President Salva Kiir urged southerners to wait to celebrate until complete results are announced in mid-February.
But before the south formally secedes, a host of prickly post-referendum issues must be resolved, most prominent among them the fate of the oil-rich province of Abyei. Legally, southern Sudan cannot make a declaration of independence until July.
The Obama administration has offered to normalize relations with Khartoum if the Sudanese government fully implements the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The 2005 pact ended more than two decades of civil war that killed nearly 2 million people.
The Obama administration has said it will consider taking Sudan off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, appoint an ambassador and allow additional licenses to increase trade and investment opportunities in Sudan.
Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special adviser on Sudan, told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the U.S. is prepared to begin the process of taking Sudan off the terror list within the next 30 days, provided the government in Khartoum conducts the referendum peacefully and accepts the results.
Northern Sudanese officials say they have held up their end of the bargain and are looking to the international community to help Sudan.
"We have good promises and praise from the international community … we hope this will be reflected," said Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington.
He said the government in Khartoum expects the international community to help Sudan deal with "big issues," including debt relief, development aid and the lifting of sanctions against Khartoum.
"The statement of cooperation this time should not be pledges that will take a long time, such as what happened in 2005," Mr. Mohamed said, referring to when the CPA was struck.
"People were left waiting for sanctions to be lifted and development to come, but nothing happened," he said. "We hope that this time the promises will be actual."
Western officials and analysts are concerned that unresolved post-referendum issues could disrupt the fragile peace in Sudan.
Jendayi Frazer, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said significant work needs to be done to avoid conflict between the north and south.
"Abyei is at the epicenter of those issues," said Ms. Frazer, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The northerners want to guarantee political rights for the nomadic Misseriya tribe, which migrates through Abyei with its livestock, while the southerners want to ensure ownership of the land by the Ngok Dinka tribe.
Ms. Frazer and southern Sudanese officials say the north is holding on to Abyei as a bargaining chip for the negotiations on post-referendum issues.
Congress has linked removing Sudan from the terror list to progress in the western province of Darfur, where government-backed militias reportedly are involved in atrocities.
Ms. Frazer said taking Sudan off the list should be a technical decision. U.S. agencies, including the CIA, have concluded in recent assessments that Sudan is not sponsoring terror.
"If that is the case, they shouldn't be on the list," she said. "It is problematic to use that as a leverage against them on other issues."
Southern Sudanese officials expect momentum in post-referendum talks to pick up even as votes are being counted and verified.
"I think the process will pick up now because there are no miracles which will happen to retain the unity of the country," said Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of mission of the Government of Southern Sudan in the U.S.
"The north has started to realize this reality," he added.
Southern officials accuse their northern counterparts of dragging their feet on resolving post-referendum issues. Northern officials say they are focused on wrapping up the referendum.
"Most of these [post-referendum] issues will come up after the results. These challenges are on the table. Right now, people are busy celebrating and planning their future," Mr. Mohamed said.
Both sides acknowledged that their fates are intertwined.
"The north needs us, and we need the north," Mr. Gatkuoth said.
One example of this interdependence is oil.
While the south is the oil-producing half of Sudan, all the refineries are located in the north.
Among the many challenges is border security. Eighty percent of the border already has been defined, and Britain is helping demarcate the area with the help of colonial-era maps.
Northern officials are confident that all post-referendum issues, including Abyei, will be resolved, allowing for a peaceful split of their country.
"Since there is goodwill, I am optimistic," Mr. Mohamed said.
New talks are to be held in Khartoum from Jan. 27, but neither side has responded to proposals made by U.N. mediator Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, said Haile Menkerios, U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs.
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