UNITED NATIONS Envoys from the U.N. Security Council depart for Sudan on Monday to press Africa's largest country to avert a new civil war by ensuring there is no delay on a January referendum on independence for its oil-producing south.
The plebiscite on whether semi-autonomous southern Sudan should secede or remain under control of Khartoum in the north is scheduled to be held January 9, the same day as a referendum in the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei on whether it should remain with the north or join the south.
Preparations for both referendums are behind schedule and Security Council diplomats want to impress on the Sudanese that the votes must go ahead on time in the interests of avoiding the renewal of a decades-long civil war that ended in 2005.
U.S. President Barack Obama, at a high-level U.N. meeting last month, said what happens in Sudan is important to the region and world and that country could either "move forward toward peace or slip backwards into bloodshed."
Analysts have warned there is a risk that conflict could reignite if the referendum -- highly prized by southerners who are expected to vote for secession -- is disrupted or delayed.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, a member of Obama's Cabinet and the National Security Council, will join her British counterpart Mark Lyall Grant and other senior envoys from the 15 U.N. Security Council members for the trip.
Envoys from Russia and China, one of Sudan's top trading partners and a supplier of arms to Khartoum, also will be on the trip, U.N. officials said.
FIRST STOP IN UGANDA
The week-long visit will begin in Uganda where envoys are expected to meet with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni before heading to Juba, the capital of southern Sudan. The delegation then will head to Sudan's conflict-torn western Darfur region before departing for Khartoum.
John Prendergast, a former U.S. State Department official and co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group, said he hoped the council's visit will "signify an international community united around one path toward peace."
"The visit is late but by no means too late to influence calculations toward the necessary compromises for peace," he told Reuters.
Sudanese officials, diplomats said, had wanted the council to meet with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and other war crimes in Darfur in the past seven years.
The U.S., British and other delegations refused to meet with him and chose not to ask for any time with Bashir, who may be in Libya when the delegation reaches Khartoum.
People from the oil-producing south were promised a plebiscite on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
Last week northern and southern Sudanese officials traded accusations of deploying troops along their joint border in the run-up to the referendums. South Sudan's army accused the north of building up about 70,000 troops in contested areas and plotting an invasion of the south.
The two sides have clashed since the signing of the 2005 peace accord -- most recently two years ago in Abyei, a disputed central region with oil reserves and rich pastures.
Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha said on Monday that the Abyei referendum will not go ahead unless outstanding issues are settled first in talks, the first hint from Sudan's leadership that the politically sensitive vote in the central region might not take place.
Some analysts fear that Abyei could become "Africa's Kashmir," a reference to a disputed territory that Pakistan and India have fought two wars over.
(Editing by Bill Trott)