U.S. Sen. John Kerry says Sudan's northern government will win quick U.S. incentives if an independence referendum in the south goes smoothly, but further improvement of ties will depend on progress toward peace in the separate conflict in Darfur.
Kerry, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, was in Sudan on Friday ahead of the critical referendum on independence for the country's south. The vote is a key element of a 2005 peace agreement that ended the 21-year civil war between the Arab-dominated north and the mainly Christian, animist south. Some 2 million people were killed in the conflict.
Relations between Sudan and the U.S. have soured since President Omar al-Bashir's government came to power in 1989. The U.S. imposed economic, trade and financial sanctions against Sudan in 1997, and added new ones in 2007 because of the Darfur conflict. President Barack Obama renewed the economic sanctions in a letter to Congress in November, a requirement by law every year.
Kerry said he has seen a positive shift in the Khartoum government's approach toward the Jan. 9 referendum, which is expected to see the oil-rich south split off from the north into an independent country.
"They deserve credit for making the decision to follow through and deliver on the (peace agreement)," Kerry said. "I think there has been a constructive change there and we need to follow from there."
If the referendum goes smoothly and the north accepts the results, he said, Obama is prepared to "immediately" initiate the process to remove Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, which Khartoum has been on since 1993. Kerry called the move a confidence-building measure.
But progress toward a peace deal in Darfur would be critical to lifting sanctions on the Khartoum government, said Kerry, who is on his fourth visit to Sudan.
"Darfur remains a very critical issue and center of our focus and I went there today to purposely link the future of Sudan to our ability to resolve what happens in Darfur," he said.
Al-Bashir accused the U.S. of breaking past promises to remove Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism.
"We don't pay very much attention to American promises," he told al-Jazeera TV late Friday.
Kerry visited Shangil Tobyai, a village in northern Darfur Friday, where thousands of newly displaced fled to from recently renewed violence. He said he hoped the referendum process and the international focus on Sudan would give impetus to a new push toward making peace in Darfur.
Darfur has been in turmoil since 2003, when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government. U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been forced from their homes because of the conflict.
Attack in an oil district
Six people were killed in clashes between rebel militias and south Sudan's army on Friday and Saturday, the military said a day before a referendum in which the south is expected to vote for independence.
The attacks were a reminder of the deep rifts in the undeveloped south, which has been plagued by ethnic killings and cattle rustling raids.
On Saturday an attack on south Sudanese soldiers in a key oil-producing district left four people dead overshadowing celebrations on the eve of a landmark vote on independence for the region.
Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) -- the southern army -- said his forces ambushed fighters loyal to militia leader Galwak Gai in Unity state on Friday and Gai's men launched a counter-attack on Saturday.
"They were coming from the north to disrupt the referendum. It is a known game. The spoilers are always here. They definitely came from Khartoum," he said.
Southern leaders have regularly accused north Sudan of backing militias to try and disrupt the referendum on whether the oil-producing south should declare independence. Northern leaders have dismissed the accusations.
Aguer said SPLA forces killed two of Gai's men and captured 26 on Friday, then killed four on Saturday.
Gai was among several militia leaders who rebelled after April elections, accusing the southern government of fraud.
S Sudan Muslims eye secession
Muslims living in Sudan's largely Christian south, which holds a referendum on independence on Sunday, say they will vote for secession, even though some new arrivals are nervous about their future.
"I am a citizen of the south 100 percent, and I have all the rights enjoyed by southern Sudanese," said 55-year-old merchant Abu Obeida Mustapha Kurak, who is a member of the Islamic council of south Sudan.
Dressed in his white "jalabiya," Kurak strolls through Juba's main market greeting his friends.
"I will never leave Juba. Our great-grandfather came to Juba 110 years ago, from Nile state, north of Khartoum, and now we are an integral part of this town."
The last census to mention the religion of southerners dates back to 1956. It classified the majority of the population as Christian, or following traditional beliefs, and put the number of Muslims at 18 percent.