US urges violence prevention in southern Sudan

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The top U.S. diplomat for Sudan is urging a range of steps to quell violence surging in southern Sudan as two key votes approach — one of them a referendum on independence that some fear could spark a new civil war.

Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, told reporters Monday that rising violence needs to be curbed before the critical north-south independence referendum in early 2011. He said the flow of weapons to Southern Sudan needs to be stopped, tribal tensions addressed and the mobility and effectiveness of security forces improved.

“Violence in the south is too high,” said Gration, whose job entails trying to help find solutions in a vast country at the heart of Africa, where decades of volatility have destabilized a wide region and grabbed international headlines.

A 20-year civil war between the north and the south ended in a peace agreement five years ago. Sudan has continued to suffer widespread violence, including in its western Darfur region.

A group of aid agencies last week called on the international community to do more to strengthen the 2005 peace deal. In a report titled “Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan,” the aid agencies said some 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 others were displaced in 2009 due to a major upsurge in violence. They warned that “a return to conflict would have devastating consequences that extend far beyond Southern Sudan.”

“What we need to do is get out in front and prevent these problems,” Gration said, speaking to reporters in Washington and by video link to journalists in Johannesburg and New York. He described the U.S. role as creating conditions for Sudanese to find solutions themselves.

Sudan is holding its first nationwide parliamentary and presidential elections in April. Gration says that vote will be an important step, setting the tone for the referendum on independence for southern Sudan.

The 2005 peace deal created a transitional national unity government, but mistrust between Sudan’s former north-south rivals runs deep.

The oil-rich south is expected to vote for independence from the north. Gration said work needed to start now to ensure that if that is the choice, the creation of a new African country would be smooth. He said agreements need to be reached even before the vote on such issues as sharing water and grazing land as well as the south’s oil wealth, and drawing borders.

“We cannot wait until the referendum is here,” he said. “It will be too late.”

The aid agencies, concerned the referendum could re-ignite war, made a similar point last week, urging the international community to help mediate between the parties before the elections and referendum are held.

Despite the possible pitfalls, Gration said he expected the referendum to be held as scheduled.

“I see political will, I see cooperation and I see continued commitment on both sides to have this take place,” he said.