Juba — South Sudan on Sunday said it is seeking international support to push the government of neighboring Sudan to accept an African Union proposal to resolve the dispute over the contested fertile and oil-producing Abyei region by a referendum in October 2013.
Speaking at an Abyei community briefing broadcast on South Sudan Television on Sunday, Nhial Deng Nhial, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Deng Alor Kuol, Minister of Cabinet Affairs said the only way to the end conflict over the area and bring peace to the region is to conduct a referendum so that its citizens and residents can decide their own future.
"The only way to resolve differences is to conduct [a] referendum. This is the option most members of the international community have accepted. France, United Kingdom and United States are now supporting the conduct of referendum", Kuol said in a televised statement.
The status of contested areas and the location of the new international border were not addressed in a 27 September cooperation agreement signed in Addis Ababa after months of mediation by an AU panel tasked with helping the two sides resolve the outstanding issues related to South Sudan's separation from Sudan in July last year.
Negotiations chaired by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) on Sudan and South Sudan, led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, are expected to resume in the near future following the ratification of the nine deal's by the two country's parliaments.
South Sudanese officials, including President Salva Kiir Mayardit, in September accepted the mediation's proposal over Abyei but the Sudanese delegation including President Omer Ahmed al-Bashir rejected the offer showing interest in returning to a previous proposal which suggested partitioning the area.
Juba has rejected any partitioning of Abyei, pointing out that the issue should be resolved on the basis of the Abyei protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the two sides in 2005 ending decades of civil war.
The CPA stated that a referendum of those resident in the area be held at the same time as South Sudan's own plebiscite on independence in January 2011. With both sides unable to form the body to conduct the referendum and disagreement on who should be allowed to take part, the vote did not take place.
Khartoum want more members of Misseriya ethnic group, some of whom enter the area with their cattle for part of the year, to have voting rights in the hope that this will swing the vote in favour of Abyei remaining in Sudan's South Kordofan State. Juba insists that only those who live in the area - predominantly members of the nine chiefdom's of the Dinka Ngok - should be allowed to vote.
Kuol said that South Sudan had informed the African Union Peace and Security Council last week "that we accepted the proposal by the mediation team without preconditions and assured the members of our readiness to implement it but Sudan refused and demanded that the area be partitioned which have already rejected. This demand has no basis. Referendum is the best option and most members of the council have accepted."
The Council last week accepted the AUHIP proposal on the area but gave the two sides an additional six weeks to continue discussions in order to reach "a voluntary consensus" before it takes a unilateral decision to endorse it as final and binding decision if they failed to agree.
Sudan's allies on the UN Security Council, Russia and China, have prevented attempts to place harsher sanctions on Bashir for the conduct of the war in Darfur, for which Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court,
However, Luka Biong Deng, a Co-Chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee told Sudan Tribune on Sunday from New York that he was optimistic that all the permanent members of the Security Council will back the AU's referendum proposal.
"It is no doubt that Security Council of United Nations will endorse resolution of the African Union Peace and Security Council. France, UK and United States have given an indication that they will support it. We are also seeking support of China and Russia. I have actually arranged [a] meeting [with] them", Deng told Sudan Tribune by phone from New York on Sunday.
In the televised statement Minister Nhial said his government was ready to work out details to form an interim administration to facilitate return of the returnees to the area but that the time has come for international community push on Sudan to accept the mediation proposal and implement it.
The Abyei issue was further complicated ahead of South Sudan's independence last year when the area was occupied by the Sudan Armed Forces displacing over 100,000 Dinka Ngok from their homes. After a UN Security Council resolution called on both sides to remove their armed forces from the area the Dinka Ngok are beginning to return to Abyei town and other areas.
South Sudan's appeal for the international community to throw its weight behind the AU-proposed-referendum comes a day after it was announced that Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir is expected to visit Juba in the first of week of November.
Bashir had been scheduled to visit Juba in April but the trip was postponed due to a border conflict that flared up around the Heglig oil field, which has been administered by Sudan for the duration of the CPA but has since been claimed by South Sudan.
It is hoped that Bashir's visitwill help restore ties between the two nations, which have been threatened with sanctions by the UN Security Council should they fail to resolve their outstanding issue from the partition of Africa's largest nation.
Sudan's foreign minister Ali Ahmed Karti confirmed the planned visit to the press in Khartoum on Saturday without giving any exact dates but said Bashir's visit will open a new page in the development of bilateral relations between the two neighbours. Sudan's embassy in Juba has also not confirmed the date of the visit.