Juba: Chanting crowds greeted UN Security Council ambassadors in the Sudan region that wants to become the world`s newest nation as international leaders highlighted the risk of conflict there.
Even Hollywood star George Clooney is in South Sudan raising his fears of "war" ahead of the January 09 referendum on whether it should break away from the Khartoum controlled north.
A UN Security Council delegation is in Sudan to reinforce its message that the referendum must be held on time and in peaceful conditions.
Preparations for dual votes in South Sudan and the small oil-rich region of Abyei are way behind schedule. The Sudanese government`s announcement that voter registration would start on November 14 failed to dispel fears that the referenda would be held up.
Thousands of children and adults lined the streets of the South Sudan capital, Juba, for the arrival of the UN ambassadors as they started a four-day trip to highlight the importance of the vote.
`The Referendum Must Be Held On Time`, said banners held up by the crowds, who chanted songs, while some beat out rythms on the ground with spears.
Ambassadors from Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and 10 other Security Council nations were warmly greeted by Salva Kiir, the vice president of Sudan and leader of the administration that wants to break away.
Diplomats predict the vote will back a split. Kiir has called the vote date "sacrosanct" and warned of the risk of conflict if it is delayed.
The UN ambassadors say their message on this mission is to make sure that the January 09 votes are held on-time, in peace and has a credible result.
The referenda in South Sudan and Abyei are part of a 2005 accord which ended two decades of civil war in which about two million people died.
Some western nations fear that if the vote is delayed, Kiir`s government could declare unilateral independence, sparking a new conflict.
The UN ambassadors arrived from Uganda where they held talks with President Yoweri Museveni who pledged support for efforts to make sure the vote is peaceful. Uganda has in the past been a strong supporter of the South Sudan rebels.
The ambassadors are to inspect UN training facilities for South Sudanese police on Thursday before going on to Darfur where the rumbling conflict since 2003 is causing new concern.
Ethnic minority rebels are fighting the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. In the latest blow to peace hopes, Darfur`s only Arab rebel leader was killed in fighting in the western region, a rebel official said.
Ibrahim al-Zubaidi, head of the United Revolutionary Force Front, was killed in battle with Sudanese troops, said Hafez Ibrahim.
Sudan`s President Omar al-Bashir is wanted on war crimes and genocide charges by the UN`s International Criminal Court. He will not meet the UN envoys in Khartoum because of the charges, diplomats said.
Mounting warnings about Sudan have been made ahead of the referendum with Hollywood star Clooney echoing fears also expressed again by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Clooney is on a tour of south Sudan with US television channel NBC. He "fears a war is coming here" NBC journalist Ann Curry, who is with Clooney, said in a Twitter release.
The actor has visited a mass grave and spoken to local tribal leaders in South Sudan, she added.
In New York, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said "handled properly, the January ballot could help build a future improves the lives of all Sudanese. Handled poorly, it could spark conflict with consequences across Africa and beyond."
In a bid to answer critics, Sudan said that voter registration would start on November 14. The obstacles ahead remain formidable however.
"The timeframe is a really big problem," said Chan Reec, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission. He acknowledged that the vote may be delayed but was confident it would be held.