Home | News    Sunday 20 July 2003

INTERVIEW-Arab League "will respect Sudan referendum"

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By Caroline Drees

CAIRO, July 20 (Reuters) - The Arab League said on Sunday it hoped to help Sudan stay united by financing projects in the south, but would respect the wishes of southerners if they voted to secede.

Some Arab states, especially Sudan’s northern neighbour Egypt, fear ongoing talks between the Sudanese government and southern rebels could lead to secession and instability in their backyard. The two sides have already agreed to a referendum on secession.

Some two million people have been killed since war erupted in 1983. The rebels want more autonomy for the largely animist or Christian south from the mostly Muslim north. The conflict is exacerbated by issues including oil and tribal loyalties.

Peace talks are to resume in Kenya this week, after hitting a snag over the latest proposals from mediators.

"Our main objective is to work on the development of southern Sudan as part of efforts to make unity an attractive option," said Samir Hosni, head of the League’s African and Afro-Arab Cooperation Department.

"We have received pledges from the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development and Arab states. Some $117 million are ready to be used to finance and implement projects, such as a main road linking the north and the south," he told Reuters.

Hosni said development of the south was not a "bribe" to get southerners to vote for unity in the future referendum, scheduled to take place six years after a peace deal is reached.

"If southern Sudan chooses secession after the referendum, we will respect fully the decision of the southern Sudanese people and we will continue our role to preserve the common interests there and in order to have good relations with a new... neighbour," he said.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa last month became the first leader of the pan-Arab body to visit southern Sudan in 50 years, trying to bridge differences between the government and rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

Sudan last week rejected several proposals put forward by mediators, but said it would resume peace talks this week.

"The secretary general is having contacts with the two main parties to narrow the gap between them," Hosni said.

"(He) has encouraged the government of Sudan not to simply reject the mediators’ proposal but to present an alternative proposal," he said, adding he believed Khartoum would make a counter-proposal to get talks back on track.

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