KHARTOUM/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The leader of south Sudan pledged on Wednesday that northerners would be welcome if his region gains independence in an upcoming vote, brushing aside a warning minorities could face expulsion and abuse.
In just over 100 days, people across Sudan are due to vote in a long-awaited referendum that will decide whether the oil-producing south will secede. The vote is a key part of the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
An outcome for independence, widely expected by analysts, would leave a question mark hanging over the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of southerners living in Khartoum and other northern cities, and northerners living in south Sudan.
“Both southerners in the north and northerners living in southern Sudan told Human Rights Watch that they feared retaliation, even expulsion, if secession were approved,” the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The two parties to the peace agreement — the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) — should state publicly that they will not expel each other’s minorities,” it added.
SPLM leader Salva Kiir, who is both president of south Sudan and the entire country’s first vice president, said on Wednesday that the south would respect minority rights if it gains independence.
“Those who want to remain in the south will have nothing to fear. They are most welcome,” he said during an event in New York organized by the International Peace Institute.
“There are people from the south in the north and vice versa. We need to protect these people with their property so no one infringes on their rights.”
Kiir said northern nomadic peoples who move to the south to graze their cattle in the dry season would not be impeded.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who heads the NCP, said in Khartoum on Wednesday that he backed a “free, fair and transparent” referendum.
Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court accuses of genocide in the separate conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, said southerners should be able to vote “without any dictation, pressure and intimidation”.
As the January 9 referendum date draws nears, foreign powers fear Sudan may not have time to pull together the highly sensitive and complex poll.
Southern leaders have repeatedly accused Khartoum of trying to disrupt the vote in a bid to retain control of the south’s oil. In turn, NCP officials have accused the SPLM of pushing a separatist agenda and quashing unionist voices in the south.
Northern and southern leaders have been meeting for weeks to decide how they will share oil revenues and national debts after the vote, together with other issues, including the nationality of southerners in the north and vice versa.
No concrete decisions have been announced, and it remains unclear how an independence vote — if it actually happens — would affect citizenship and property rights.
The United States has offered Khartoum economic and diplomatic incentives on the condition it allows the vote to take place, implements the 2005 peace deal and resolves outstanding issues in Darfur.
Speaking at the United Nations, U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday pledged support for a peaceful shift to democracy in Sudan as he declared a new U.S. approach to development.
Obama is among those scheduled to attend a special summit on Sudan during the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday that is expected to signal renewed global support for holding the vote on time.
Reporting by Andrew Heavens in Khartoum and Helen Popper in New York; editing by Missy Ryan and Mohammad Zargham