United States Senator John Kerry on Wednesday in Khartoum hailed as "extremely encouraging" latest remarks by Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on the upcoming referendum on southern independence.
Bashir on a visit to the southern capital Juba Tuesday said he would celebrate the results of the referendum even if the south chooses to secede, and pledged last week to help build a secure, stable and "brotherly" southern state if it votes for independence.
South Sudanese go to the polls on Sunday in a referendum that marks the culmination of decades of war and six years of peace, that could see the mostly Christian south break from historical domination by the Muslim north.
"The speech by President Bashir here (on Dec. 31) as well as his comments in Juba yesterday are extremely encouraging," Kerry told journalists, after a meeting in the Sudanese capital with influential presidential adviser Ghazi Salaheddine.
"They're very positive, very constructive, and I think it sets a good stage for the events that begin in the next days," Kerry said.
"We look forward to a successful referendum which is the precursor to a stronger and new relationship with the United States and other countries," Kerry added.
Despite serious doubts just a few months ago, and the challenges facing the commission organizing it, the Jan. 9-15 plebiscite that could divide Africa's largest country in two, finally looks set to go ahead on time.
"We are ready. We have distributed the election material to all the designated places. It's now up to the referendum commission to send them to the voting stations," Dennis Kadima, the head of the U.N. referendum agency UNIRED, told AFP.
Preparing for the great day
"We are really 100 percent prepared for the great day," Chan Reec, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC), said on Monday.
There is also growing optimism about the future relationship of north and south Sudan -- bitter enemies during a devastating civil war that lasted 22 years -- even if the southerners choose independence.
Some 3.9 million southerners, mostly living in the south, but with others in the north and abroad, have registered to vote in the referendum, according to AFP.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced in November that the United States had extended economic sanctions on Sudan for at least one year, saying the circumstances which led to their imposition some 13 years ago had not been resolved.
Shortly afterwards, however, Kerry said Washington had offered to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism early if the referendum on southern independence went on track, though he added that this would not affect U.S. sanctions against Khartoum related to Darfur.
Sudan faces huge economic problems, with soaring inflation, caused by the sharp devaluation of the Sudanese pound over the past three months, large external debts, and the collapse in oil prices three years ago.
"Obviously there are huge economic challenges (in Sudan) and that's something that we discussed today," Kerry said on Wednesday, without elaborating.
The predominantly Arab north and largely black south have shared a violent history, from the days of slavery through the colonial period until now.
Religious differences and the concentration of power in Khartoum have been key factors behind the fighting since independence in 1956.
Between 1920 and 1947, the British colonial rulers administered the two regions separately, limiting the movement of people between them and encouraging Christian missionary work and English in the south.
The first north-south civil war broke out several months before independence and lasted until 1972. The southerners took up arms again in 1983 and finally signed a peace deal with Khartoum in 2005 that guaranteed them a referendum on their future six years later.
The fighting killed two million people and left another four million displaced.
The vast, resource-rich south, still recovering from so many years of war, has an estimated 8.5 million inhabitants and has been autonomous since the 2005 peace accord was signed.
"They are almost two independent states already," said a diplomat in Khartoum speaking on condition of anonymity.
Senior politicians in Khartoum, including Bashir himself, have recognized in recent weeks that independence will be the likely choice of southerners.
But for the vote to be valid at least 60 percent of those registered must cast their ballot, and there are concerns about the transparency of a voting process that will mostly take place in one of Africa's least-developed regions.
International bodies charged with monitoring the referendum include the Carter Center, the European Union and the Arab League.
If it does vote to secede, south Sudan would become an independent state in July, at the end of the six month interim period stipulated by the peace agreement.
The 2005 peace accord (CPA) that ended Sudan's devastating north-south civil war also stipulated that a referendum would be held simultaneously on the future of the disputed oil-rich district of Abyei.
But that vote has been postponed indefinitely.