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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.

Khartoum and Juba both rely on revenues from the 500,000 barrels of crude a day that Sudan pumps. Four-fifths of that oil comes from southern fields close to the border, but all the pipelines head north so for either side to realize the value of the resource they have to work together.

“Oil is the biggest disincentive to conflict because they need each other,” said Zach Vertin, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group. Under the peace deal revenues have, at least on paper, been evenly shared but it is unclear what might happen after independence.

Besides the oil there are other equally thorny and fundamental issues such as the exact location of the border and whether the disputed oil-producing territory of Abyei will lie to its north or south. How will precious water resources in a parched land be shared? What will be the citizenship and nationality of southerners in the north and northerners in the south after the referendum? Who should carry what share of Sudan’s national debt burden?

The North and South will struggle to resolve all of these sticking points within the six months between Sunday’s referendum and July 9, the expected date for southern independence to be officially recognized.

“The progress is good but the pace is slow,” Vertin said.

In an upbeat assessment, referendum officials said everything was now set for the vote. “We are really 100 percent prepared,” said Justice Chan Reec Madut, a spokesman for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission.

High-level teams of international observers are beginning to arrive in Sudan, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In an unusual move, China has also announced that it will send observers to the referendum — underscoring China’s importance as a partner of the Khartoum government and its desire to build a strong relationship with the emerging southern one.