US official: Sudan’s elections to be crucial test

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Sudan electionsSudan’s upcoming elections must be as transparent as possible to prepare for a referendum on independence for the oil-rich south in 2011, but many obstacles remain, including continued conflict in Darfur, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

Scott Gration, the U.S. envoy to Sudan said that April’s presidential and parliamentary polls would probably be flawed but could still “reflect the will of the people.”

Sudan has been wracked by decades of war. A 2005 peace agreement ended the north-south conflict that killed 2 million people but by then the western Darfur region was at war. The referendum for the south’s independence is part of the peace agreement.

Sudan’s election next month will be an important indicator of how smoothly the independence referendum scheduled for 2011 could go.

People living in both southern and western Sudan have long complained that the central government clings to power through force, neglecting outlying regions politically and economically.

Some Sudanese boycotted the voter registration process because they say the polls ? the first in 24 years ? will not be fair, but Gration said four-fifths of eligible voters have registered.

Most analysts believe President Omar al-Bashir will retain the presidency despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed in Darfur.

Gration said that although attention was turning to the election and after that the referendum, there has been a small window for peace talks. Discussions aimed at unifying disparate rebel groups and helping them negotiate a final deal with the government are currently taking place in Qatar. One group signed a preliminary deal last month.

Several Darfur peace deals have already come and gone but the one signed between north and south is holding.
Oil from the south provides most of Sudan’s revenues, but the region is deeply impoverished. Southerners are widely expected to support independence in the 2011 referendum and any hint the result was tampered with could spark renewed fighting.

Gration said before southern independence is a viable option, several issues must be addressed including the demarcation of the border, the division of national assets and debts, and the disputed region of Abyei, an oil-rich region that has been claimed by both north and south.

Associated Press writer Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

Source: The Associated Press.