A top official in Southern Sudan said Tuesday that officials in Sudan's north are holding an oil-rich area of the country "hostage" in negotiations being held before a January independence referendum.
Pagan Amum, the secretary-general of the south's ruling party, said that southern officials are preparing what he labeled a ransom package in order to break the impasse over the Abyei region, which lies along the north-south faultline.
Southern Sudan and the region of Abyei are both scheduled to hold an independence referendum on Jan. 9 to decide whether they want to remain in a united Sudan or begin a new country in the south. But preparations for the vote are not yet complete, and the north and south haven't agreed on issues like who is eligible to vote in Abyei, as well as oil rights and border demarcation.
Amum said one possibility being examined is having Abyei transferred to southern control by presidential decree in exchange for concessions from the south _ which Amum didn't detail _ and concessions from the U.S., including the lifting of economic sanctions against Sudan.
Last week in Washington Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, said President Obama wants better relations with Sudan. Gration said that if the January votes are carried out peacefully, the U.S. could grant Sudan debt relief and remove foreign assistance restrictions and economic sanctions.
"There is no problem with Abyei," said Amum. "Who votes is clear. The land of the Ngok Dinka is clear. ... We are now asking what is it that they want to release Abyei? They have told us that they want something from us and they want something from the Americans."
Officials from Sudan's north and south will soon meet in Ethiopia to continue negotiations surrounding the January votes. An African Union panel will chair the talks.
Whether Khartoum would transfer Abyei to southern control depends on whether the north is happy with the south's package and U.S. offers, Amum said.