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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North and south Sudan must be ready to compromise next week when they meet in Ethiopia to discuss obstacles to votes that could see the oil-rich south emerge as an independent country, U.S. officials said on Friday.
President Barack Obama's special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, said the talks Wednesday could be one of the last chances to agree the framework for the January 9 referendums, which observers fear may open the door to new conflict in a state which only emerged from decades of civil war in 2005.
"There's no more time to waste," he told a news briefing.
"The parties must be prepared to come to Addis with an attitude of compromise. The entire world is watching and will make judgments based on how the parties approach these talks, on how they act in the next couple of months.
Visiting Khartoum, U.S. Senator John Kerry said separately on Friday that the United States wanted a "new relationship" with Sudan and should offer Khartoum immediate concessions if it holds the referendums peacefully.
"I say this to the leaders in the north that President Obama would like to find the way forward for a new relationship with Sudan," Kerry, chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at the start of a three-day trip to Sudan.
He said Washington had already offered Sudan incentives, including a possible easing of economic sanctions.
"I think that people have a right to expect that if there is full cooperation and a referendum that is carried out appropriately, according to international standards, I think there ought to be an immediate reactive step of some kind."
But he added: "If people choose the wrong road there are many other options available to us to be able to ratchet up sanctions."
Next week's talks in Ethiopia, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, follow nine days of discussions between the two sides this month that failed to resolve key issues, including the status of the disputed border region of Abyei.
Under its 2005 comprehensive peace deal, Sudan is due to hold two referendums on January 9 to determine whether the south secedes and whether Abyei joins the north or the south.
Relations between the two sides remain strained and the slow pace of preparations has raised concern the votes may be delayed -- a prospect the south has said could lead back to war.
Fundamental issues including borders, citizenship and division of oil revenues remain to be agreed, and preparations must be made such as registering voters, employing poll workers and putting domestic and international monitors in place.
"We're committed to on-time referenda in both Abyei and southern Sudan," Gration said. "It is really up to the parties to take the decisions and take the actions to make this a reality."
White House officials say Obama is increasingly concerned about Sudan, and receives at least three weekly briefings on the issue from Denis McDonough, a senior official who was on Friday named deputy national security advisor.
"It is impossible to overstate the degree of high-level attention being given to Sudan at the White House," Samantha Power, a National Security Council official, told the briefing, adding the administration was making "a full court press" to ensure the votes take place peacefully.
The State Department has chosen former diplomat Princeton Lyman to help facilitate the talks between the two sides, and has nearly tripled the number of diplomatic personnel in south Sudan as part of a "diplomatic surge."
The United States has asked U.N. officials to brief the Security Council on Monday on peacekeeping preparations in Sudan including Darfur, and is stepping up contacts with aid organizations to evaluate what might happen after the votes.
A key concern is the safety of southern Sudanese living in the north and northerners living in the south, with observers worried that a vote to secede may spark retribution against those left on the wrong side of the border.
Editing by Andrew Roche