Sudan's foreign minister on Wednesday said that though the government is opposed to splitting up the country, it "won't object" if southerners vote for independence in an upcoming referendum.
The northern-based government has sent mixed signals regarding the Jan. 9 independence vote, which is required by a 2005 peace agreement that ended the 21-year war between Sudan's predominantly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the largely Christian-animist south.
Officials have insisted they would respect its outcome and would work to make the vote take place on time and in line with international obligations. But southern politicians accuse the north of stalling on its commitments to prepare for the referendum _ and have accused it of sponsoring violence to undermine the vote. There are fears it could lead to a new outbreak of north-south civil war.
Senior north and southern officials said on Tuesday they would try to stop comments to the media escalating disagreements over the vote. Tension between the two sides has been high as the referendum date nears.
"We believe that the people in southern Sudan who want separation are in the minority, however, they are effective in their campaigning," Ali Karti told a joint news conference with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara on Wednesday.
Karti said his country was working with the Arab Union and Africa counties to "counter those who want to separate."
"If however as a result of the referendum, it turns out that a majority of southern Sudan wants to separate from the north, then we won't object," he said.
If there is a split, the government would have to deal with the large number of southern Sudanese that live in the north, and find ways to share oil and address Sudan's extensive debt, Karti said.
"The whole process will hopefully be peaceful," Karti said.
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.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the responsibility for Sudan's future rests with its political leaders. Obama met with other world leaders at the United Nations in September to address concerns that preparations for the January vote were lagging, and said the coming months may show whether the Sudanese people "move forward with peace or slip backward into bloodshed."
The civil war, in which nearly 2 million people died, was one of the bloodiest of the second half of the 20th century.
Associated Press Writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Erol Israfil in Istanbul contributed to this report.