Sudan's foreign minister assured the U.N. Security Council Saturday that the government is committed to holding a referendum on southern independence on time _ a vote that is widely expected to split the country in two.
Addressing Security Council members wrapping up a fact-finding trip to Sudan and Uganda, Ali Karti said the government's sole condition was no outside interference in the referendum.
"We are fully committed to holding the referendum on time," Karti told the visiting members of the Council, the U.N.'s most powerful arm. "We want it on time, but it must be arranged properly. ... We do not want any interference in the referendum, this is the only condition."
The referendum is required by a 2005 peace agreement that ended the 21-year civil war between Sudan's predominantly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the largely Christian-animist south.
Preparations for the Jan. 9 vote have proceeded haltingly amid political and logistical obstacles, and the southerners have accused the northerners of stalling, warning of violence if the referendum is delayed.
Underlining the tensions surrounding the vote, clashes erupted between southern pro-secession demonstrators and pro-unity northerners staging a rally in Khartoum. Some 70 southerners were arrested, and at least five people were wounded, according to the witnesses.
Police armed with sticks quickly dispersed the protesters, some of whom were toting posters reading, "No No Unity."
The vote on secession is open to all southerners whether they live in the north or the south, but determining who is eligible to vote and citizenship after the referendum have fueled tensions.
North Sudan officials are wary of losing the oil-rich south, while southerners say the Islamist-controlled government in Khartoum is not living up to its commitments of sharing wealth and respecting freedom of expression and religion.
Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the U.N., told reporters Saturday that the Council wants to see a concerted push to resolve the many "key outstanding issues," such as funding and citizenship, before a vote can be held.
"The timetable is now extremely tight," he said, but added that the Council still believes it is "doable."
The Security Council members were visiting Sudan to gauge the situation in the country and hear from both sides about preparations less than 100 days before the referendum.
Last month, officials in the north laid out a new set of conditions for the vote, including completely demarcating the long north-south border along which much of the country's oil lies. They also called for the redeployment of southern forces. Southerners have dismissed the conditions.
During the Council's visit to the south, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir asked the Security Council to deploy U.N. peacekeepers along the poorly defined north-south border in an effort to ease tensions in the run-up to the vote, Council diplomats said.
But until the request is made formally, the Council won't act.
"We will continue to discuss that when we return to New York," said Tsuneo Nishida, Japan's ambassador to the U.N., told The Associated Press.
The Council members didn't meet with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes committed in Darfur, Sudan's other war-ravaged region in the west.
On Saturday, as the Security Council members prepared to return to New York, its members also met with international humanitarian workers and U.N. officials and other people seeking to improve conditions in Darfur and avert disaster if new war breaks out over the fate of Southern Sudan.
The country, Africa's largest, has been riven by two major conflicts.
The war in Darfur began with a 2003 rebellion by rebel groups who accused the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of neglecting the vast desert region. The conflict has left up to 300,000 people dead and forced 2.7 million to flee their homes, according to U.N. figures.
Then there is the more than two-decade-old civil war between the north and south that ended with a 2005 peace agreement. Many worry about a new outbreak of north-south conflict in the wake of the referendum.