A northern Sudanese official said Thursday that a crucial referendum on the future of an oil-rich region along the country's north-south border cannot be held as scheduled because of disagreements over who can vote.
But the region's administrator from the southern party rejected this, saying the residents could hold their own referendum without the government's approval.
The spat over the vote is at the center of a tug-of-war between leaders in north and south Sudan over Abyei, home to oil fields worth millions of dollars. Southern Sudan is to vote Jan. 9 on whether it will remain part of Sudan or become a new, independent country. Residents of Abyei are to vote on the same day in their own referendum whether to remain with the north or join the south.
Both southern tribes and semi-nomadic Arabs with ties to the north share Abyei. How the region navigates its upcoming referendum could factor heavily into whether Africa's largest country returns to civil war.
The two referenda were part of the 2005 peace agreement that ended a bloody 21-year civil war between Sudan's mostly Muslim north and predominantly animist and Christian south. The agreement also set up a unity government in the capital, Khartoum, and an autonomous government in the south to rule until the southern referendum.
Nearly 2 million people died in Sudan's civil war, one of the world's bloodiest of the second half of the 20th century. That war is separate from the conflict in Darfur, a western Sudanese region where fighting since 2003 has left up to 300,000 people dead and forced 2.7 million to flee their homes, according to U.N. figures.
A senior member of Sudan's northern ruling party, Dirdiri Ahmed, said internationally mediated negotiations that ended this week in Ethiopia failed to determine who can vote in Abyei's referendum.
"This means practically that the referendum won't take place on Jan. 9 as scheduled," Ahmed told The Associated Press on Thursday. He said the referendum has become a "combative" issue, pitting the communities of Abyei against each other.
He claimed the sides had agreed to find "an alternative to the referendum." Ahmed didn't elaborate but said a new round of talks is slated for Oct. 27 to discuss Abyei's final status.
But Abyei administrator Deng Arop Kuol, from the southern ruling party, said that if the government doesn't hold the vote, the people of Abyei will hold their own referendum and invite the international community to monitor.
"We insist that the referendum should be held," Kuol said.
The north and south disagree over voting rights for a semi-nomadic Arab tribe called Misseriah. Southern officials say the Misseriah don't have the right to vote in Abyei, and accuse the north of settling large numbers of the tribe in the region to rig the result.
The Misseriah consider Abyei home and have threatened to derail the referendum with violence if they can't vote.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Thursday urged the two sides to reach a consensus.
"We recognize that this is a challenge, but the parties themselves are committed to hold referenda on Southern Sudan and Abyei on Jan. 9," Crowley said "Those are commitments that the parties themselves have made, and we need them to come back together urgently prepared to reach agreement and meet those commitments."
The search for comprise took up the nine days of talks in Ethiopia. In a joint statement Wednesday, the north and south negotiating teams said the talks were productive but reached no agreement. The parties agreed to further discuss the region's fate as part of larger arrangements for the referendum and its aftermath.
This will allow the sides to discuss Abyei's final status and a framework agreement to resolve outstanding issues, the statement said.
Abyei has sparked violence in the past. Northern and southern armies clashed there two years ago, spurring some 60,000 people to flee south of the internal border. Much of the area burned to the ground in the violence and is still being rebuilt.
Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir asked members of the U.N. Security Council during their recent visit to the south's capital Juba to deploy U.N. peacekeepers along the poorly defined north-south border to ease tensions in the run-up to the vote.
Council members said a formal request has not yet been submitted.
Northern officials have rejected the presence of international forces along the boundary.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said that "most Council members are skeptical, to say the least, of the feasibility of a force that could line the entirety of the border."
"The troops don't exist," she said. "It couldn't be constituted quickly enough."
However, Rice added there was "serious discussion of alternative models" that might focus on the most vulnerable border areas or places civilians could be at risk. She said there was an "openness to this idea" but that the Council would wait for recommendations from the U.N. Secretariat and the U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Associated Press Writers Maggie Fick in Juba, Sudan, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.