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“All sides should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric or provocative actions that could raise tensions or prevent voters from expressing their will,” he added.

Sudanese officials, in the north and the south, have expressed a commitment to ensure a peaceful vote. Western officials are hopeful.

“Things are going, surprisingly, in a positive direction. There is an expectation that the transition to a new state won’t be as difficult as was imagined,” a Western official based in Southern Sudan said in a phone interview on the condition of anonymity.

Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes for atrocities in the western province of Darfur, is facing growing criticism from northerners who blame him for the likely loss of the south.

Legally, Southern Sudan cannot make a declaration of independence until July. Post-referendum issues, including border demarcation, oil revenue-sharing, currency and citizenship, are to be settled after the vote.

Western officials and analysts say the biggest flash point is the oil-rich province of Abyei. Under the CPA, a second referendum to decide whether Abyei would go with the south if it secedes also was to be held this week.

Officials from the north and the south have not made much headway in talks on Abyei.

The northerners want to guarantee political rights for the nomadic Misseriya tribe that migrates through Abyei with their livestock, while the southerners want to ensure ownership of the land by the Ngok Dinka tribe.

“Abyei hasn’t been resolved, and to say the people there who were expecting to have a referendum on the ninth of January will be disappointed is an inadequate term to express their frustrations,” said Jacqueline Wilson, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

At least eight people were killed in clashes between Misseriya and Ngok Dinka in Abyei over the weekend, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

Mr. Obama said violence in the Abyei region should cease.

Northern Sudanese officials have said they will respect the results of the referendum.

Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, said Lt. Gen. Bashir’s government is committed to a peaceful vote and would like to see steps to improve U.S.-Sudan ties implemented “as soon as possible.”

Obama administration officials are examining what latitude they have to work within the strict international sanctions on Sudan that have been in place for the better part of the past two decades.

“We are now faced with the dilemma of needing to, for our own national security interests, ensure that the north does not collapse into something more extreme or chaotic than we face now,” the senior U.S. official said. “And as we search for ways to do that, we are finding constraints at every corner.”

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