New York: US President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon led international warnings to Sudan that votes which could lead to the breakup of Africa`s biggest nation must be on time and without violence.
Amid fears of a new conflict blowing up in one of the world`s most unstable regions, Obama told a special UN meeting: "At this moment, the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance.”
"What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether people who have endured too much war, move towards peace or slip backwards to bloodshed."
He added that events between North and South Sudan and in Darfur "matters to all of sub-Saharan Africa and it matters to the world”.
Obama and the UN chief gave the same stern message to the Khartoum government and its rival in southern Sudan that they must accelerate preparations for the January 09 votes in South Sudan and the small region of Abyei.
Diplomats say preparations for the referenda are seriously behind schedule. They fear that South Sudan could declare unilateral independence if there is a delay, sparking a new civil war in the country.
The international community has "clear expectations" of the governments in the North and South, Ban Ki-moon told the meeting.
"We expect the referenda to be peaceful, carried out in an environment free of intimidation or other infringements of rights.”
"We expect both parties to accept the results, and to plan for the consequences."
The UN chief said the "stakes are high for Sudan, for Africa and for the international community”.
Two decades of civil war between the North and South up to 2005 left two million dead. The self-determination votes in South Sudan and Abyei, both key oil producers, were part of a peace accord that ended the conflict.
With Sudan`s President Omar al-Bashir facing an international warrant on war crimes charges, two vice presidents represented the divided country: Ali Osman Taha, who speaks for the Khartoum government, and Salva Kiir, the leader of Southern Sudan.
Taha said, "The outcome of the referendum will be accepted by our government," after listening to the warnings from Obama and Ban.
But he called for an easing of international sanctions against Sudan and condemned the International Criminal Court investigation of Bashir which he called an attempt to destabilise the country.
Salva Kiir said that major delays in setting up technical commissions for the vote, particularly in Abyei had to be urgently settled.
A communiqué released at the end of the meeting said both sides "committed to overcome the remaining political and technical challenges" to ensure the votes are held on January 09.
But widespread doubts remain. In Abyei, a referendum commission has not been established yet, no clear borders have been set up between North and South Sudan and no voter registration has started.
Ethiopia`s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi highlighted the fears of neighbouring nations about events in Sudan. He said preparations were critically behind and that without an urgent response "we will have a breakdown in peace”.
The North-South rivalry has overshadowed Darfur in recent weeks. But renewed hostilities in the stricken region of western Sudan -- where more than 300,000 people have been killed since 2003, according to the UN -- were highlighted by the leaders at the meeting.
Obama said the Darfur bloodshed was part of the "awful legacy of conflict in Sudan, a past that must not become Sudan`s future”.
The US President said there would be consequences for those who flout their responsibilities including "more pressure and deeper isolation”.
"The other path is taken by leaders who fulfil their obligations which would lead to improved relations between the United States and Sudan."