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U.N. confirms northern air raids on south Sudan

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Monday that forces from Sudan’s north bombed the south this month, the first independent confirmation of attacks which have raised tension before a referendum on southern secession.

Most analysts expect southerners to vote for independence in the referendum which is due to start on January 9 under a 2005 peace deal ending a north-south conflict, Africa’s longest civil war. Khartoum is desperate to keep the nation unified, not wanting to lose oil fields in the south.

The southern ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has accused the north of a series of bombing raids on its territory in November and December which it said were aimed at derailing the referendum. However, until Monday the U.N. peacekeeping mission had not commented on the reports.

“After verification it was established by the (joint cease-fire commission) members that air attacks took place in the vicinity of Timsaha in Western Bahr al-Ghazal and no casualties have been reported,” said U.N. spokesman Kouider Zerrouk.

Only Khartoum’s army has an air force. The joint cease-fire commission has officers from the armies of the north and south as well as the U.N. peacekeeping mission (UNMIS).

The northern army had denied the bombing raids and was not immediately available to comment on Monday. UNMIS said it was referring to air raids this month, not the November attacks.

The SPLM has said it would not reply militarily to what it called a provocation from the north, to keep the referendum on track. Sudan’s north-south civil war claimed about 2 million lives and destabilised much of east Africa.

The northern army accuses the south of supporting rebels from the western Darfur region who are fighting Khartoum. UNMIS said the joint cease-fire commission should be used to investigate such allegations.

The SPLM also accused the northern ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of engineering a case brought to the Constitutional Court on Sunday calling for a halt to the referendum because of massive violations during the voter registration.

But Sudanese observers said on Monday the registration was free from violations that would derail the process, pouring cold water on NCP reports of widespread manipulation.

“The registration process for the 2011 southern Sudan referendum was conducted free from violations that could significantly impact the integrity of the process, despite some shortcomings with key preparations and planning,” the statement from the joint Sudanese observer missions SuGDE and SuNDE said.

The observers had 500 monitors in the south and 200 in the north during the registration process which ran from November 15 to December 8.

“Scattered incidents of intimidation and obstruction were reported but did not seem to be part of a broader pattern, and potential registrants were generally able to participate in the process without constraint,” the statement said.

Reporting by Opheera McDoom; editing by David Stamp