‘Legitimate concern’ over Sudan referendum: Biden

The United States is working “full-time” to ensure Sudan’s January referendum on southern independence will be free and fair, amid widespread concerns of fraud, Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday.

The 9 January referendum will decide whether to grant independence for south Sudan and allow the oil-rich Abyei frontier region to fasten itself to the Muslim north or the Christian and animist south.

“We’re doing everything in our power to make sure this election on the referendum is viewed by the world as legitimate and fair,” Biden told ABC television’s “This Week.”

Amid warnings from humanitarian organizations that Sudan is “alarmingly” unprepared for the vote and could plunge once again into civil war if it does not take place, Biden acknowledged there was “legitimate concern” the election would be riddled with fraud.

But he also expressed optimism, saying he was “still hopeful.”

“We are on it full-time. And I believe that we’ll be able to pull — they’ll be able to pull (it) off, with our help and the UN’s help, they’ll be able to pull off a credible election,” Biden said.

He noted that Washington was pressing the United Nations, regional president of south Sudan Salva Kiir — a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) of former rebels — and former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who chairs an African Union panel tasked with boosting peace efforts in Darfur.

Biden has also been in talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key player in negotiations over the crisis in Darfur.

US engagement on the issue “must be viewed as credible to keep that country, that region, from deteriorating,” Biden said. “The last thing we need is another failed state in the region.”

His comments came as Washington’s special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration was on a visit to the country during which he was due to meet SPLM and National Congress Party teams negotiating arrangements for the aftermath of the referendum.

Gration’s meeting with SPLM officials carries particular weight because party officials say Kiir will contact the leaders of the two main Darfur rebel movements to ask them to rethink their positions on the peace talks.

The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died since conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime for a greater share of resources and power. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died.

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