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Sudan on edge as independence vote approaches

In southern Sudan, fears of violence ebb as millions prepare to head to polls.

South Sudan vote
A Sudanese supporter of secession displays a bracelet upon the arrival of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir at Juba airport on Jan. 4, 2010. Southerners are set to vote in a referendum on Jan. 9 on whether or not to break away from the northern Khartoum government and form their own country. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Africa’s biggest country is entering a critical moment in its history with a referendum starting on Sunday that is likely to see Sudan split into two, giving birth to the world’s newest state.

Fears of a resumption of the long and deadly civil wars that have blighted Sudan’s post-independence era were dampened this week by some conciliatory rhetoric from a surprising source: Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Bashir heads an Islamist regime in Khartoum and is wildly unpopular in the predominantly Christian South where he prosecuted a war using indiscriminate aerial bombardments and scorched earth raids by Arab militias.

Yet during a rare visit to Juba, the South's capital-in-waiting, in the days before Sunday’s referendum on self-determination for the South, Bashir said he would accept partition if that is the will of the southern people, 3.9 million of whom have registered to vote.

“Imposing unity by force doesn’t work,” Bashir said in a speech. “We want unity between the North and the South but this doesn’t mean opposing the desire of the southern citizen.”

Bashir said Khartoum is ready to recognize and support an independent South, saying, “The benefit we get from unity, we can also get it from two separate states.”

“I personally will be sad if Sudan splits,” he added. “But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides.”

The referendum vote that begins Sunday and is scheduled to last for a week was stipulated in internationally-brokered peace deal of 2005 that ended one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest conflicts fought over resources, religion and ethnicity.

During more than two decades of war, 2 million people died and 4 million more fled their homes to escape the fighting.

Bashir’s recent conciliatory comments toward his former enemies in the South mark an abrupt turnaround that will help reduce fears of a return to widespread conflict.

In September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Sudan as “a ticking time bomb” but last weekend a State Department spokesman said he was now “optimistic” about the coming referendum.

The reason for Bashir’s visit to Juba this week was to discuss with southern leader Salva Kiir some of the many issues that have not been resolved during the six years between the peace deal and Sunday’s referendum.

Top of the list is how to share Sudan’s estimated 6 billion barrels of oil, a bounty that analysts say divides, but might also unite the two parties.