JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Greeted by cheering crowds, U.N. Security Council envoys arrived in southern Sudan on Wednesday for talks with leaders of the oil-rich African country aimed at staving off a new war.
Council members headed straight to meet the president of semi-autonomous south Sudan, Salva Kiir, and his government to “get a real feel for how they perceive the situation, what their concerns are, what their aspirations are,” a senior diplomat said.
Hollywood actor and activist George Clooney was also touring south Sudan, keen to see first-hand the challenges the region faces ahead of a politically sensitive referendum that will be a central plank of Sudan’s faltering north-south peace process.
An official involved in organizing Clooney’s trip said it was unclear whether he would meet the United Nations envoys.
Northerners and southerners ended decades of civil war in Africa’s largest country with a 2005 peace deal meant to conclude with two votes — one on whether the oil-producing south should secede and a second on whether the disputed region of Abyei should join the south or north.
Arrangements for the vote have fallen behind schedule and analysts warn there is a risk of return to conflict if the vote is delayed or disrupted beyond the set date of January 9, 2011.
Security Council diplomats said they want to impress on both the north and south that the plebiscite must go ahead on time to reduce the risk of conflict re-erupting.
A senior northern Sudanese official said on Wednesday there was a risk of fresh violence if southerners insist on excluding Arab nomads from the vote on the future of the Abyei region.
Armed men opened fire on international peacekeepers in North Darfur state two days before the U.N. party arrived, but no one was injured. In all 27 U.N./African Union UNAMID soldiers and police have been killed since the mission set up in early 2008.
Hundreds of jubilant southern Sudanese were at the airport and lined the streets of the southern capital, Juba, when the U.N. envoys arrived on Wednesday. They waved and cheered as the 15-nation delegation drove through the scruffy city.
The envoys will visit other locations in the south and in Sudan’s conflict-torn western Darfur region on Thursday before heading to Khartoum for talks with northern officials. They are due to depart on Saturday.
Sudan’s northern and southern leaders are locked in talks over which communities should take part in the plebiscite.
Uganda’s U.N. Ambassador Ruhakana Rugunda told reporters on a stopover in Entebbe the Security Council wanted a “rigorous and full implementation” of Sudan’s 2005 peace accord. “The referendum should be free and fair and on time,” he said.
Southern leaders say they will refuse to accept a delay to the votes. The south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) regularly accuses the north of dragging its feet over the polls to keep control over the region’s oil.
The erstwhile civil war foes are at loggerheads over various issues including the position of their shared border and how to divide oil revenues and Sudan’s $38 billion external debts.
Additional reporting by Barry Malone in Addis Ababa and Andrew Heavens in Khartoum; Writing by Andrew Heavens and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Catherine Bremer