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Sudan Envoy Warns of Referendum Delay, Potential Violence in Abyei

Gen. Scott Gration, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Sudan, warned today of a likely delay in the two upcoming referenda, on Southern Sudanese independence and the status of the Abyei region:

A whole host of U.S. officials are on the ground in Sudan, working tirelessly to encourage that two votes scheduled for early January are conducted on time and fairly. But the top U.S. official in Sudan said on Monday that at least one of the two votes will not happen as scheduled, and that the other could now be delayed as well.

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration said on Monday on a conference call from Khartoum that due to problems setting up the vote in Abyei, that vote will not happen on Jan. 9 as had been hoped.

"We’ve passed the opportunity for there to be a poll," Gration said, citing disagreements over voter eligibility that led to delays in setting up the logistics of holding a referendum in Abyei. He said the issue was in the hands of the two parties, but that the United States was "encouraging them to do what it takes to get a solution before the end of the 9th of January."

The revised goal appears to be somewhat less ambitious, but no less critical: if the outstanding issues in dispute in Abyei are unresolved before the South votes on Jan. 9 — and if the expected outcome of secession hold — both sides could claim ownership of the province and violence could erupt.

"We are working with both sides to calm the rhetoric and put a plan in place that will give both sides reassurances," Gration said. "This is probably not a situation where either side will be happy. We’re looking for a solution that leaves both sides angry but neither side mad."

While the U.S. continues to search for a political solution to the possible referenda delays, a senior U.S. official, speaking to Josh Rogin at FP’s Cable blog, warned of the possibility of violence in the Abyei region:

A senior U.S. official, speaking on background, said that the Abyei situation was extremely tense and represented the greatest risk of violence in the near term. If Abyei breaks out in violence, it could threaten the overall Southern Sudan referendum, the official said.

"In terms of violence that would upset the (Jan. 9) referendum, Abyei could be a flashpoint that would be disturbing enough that there would be cause for a delay," the officials said. "It’s important that the (Sudanese) presidency come out with some roadmap, some solution, that the people in that area know what their future is going to be."

Of course, even without a breakout of violence in Abyei, the referendum in Southern Sudan might be delayed anyway. Gration said that although the technical preparations in Southern Sudan were going well, legal challenges to the referendum could result in a delay.


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