Page last updated at 18:12 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Sudan like a powder keg, says AU chief Jean Ping

African Union troops, file image
African Union troops have a massive presence in Sudan

A vote for independence in oil-rich Southern Sudan's referendum next year could be catastrophic, the African Union's top diplomat has warned.

In an interview with French broadcaster RFI, Jean Ping likened Sudan's situation to "sitting on a powder keg".

He suggested the nation could once again face north-south conflict and said other areas like Darfur would try to follow the south to independence.

Southern Sudanese are due to vote in an independence referendum next year.

The vote was agreed as part of a 2005 peace deal which ended a 22-year war between north and south.

The BBC's James Copnall, in Khartoum, says it is rare for such a senior official to be so outspoken.

War risk?

In his RFI interview, AU commission chairman Mr Ping said the AU was "very concerned" about Sudan.

Jean Ping, 28/01
Jean Ping's comments were rare for a senior official

"We have a feeling that we are sitting on a powder keg," he said.

"Is the war between north and south at risk of resuming despite what has been said?

"Will the independence of Southern Sudan not lead other players in Darfur and in other places, which are currently not asking for independence, to seek independence as Southern Sudan will have done?"

He described the sequence of events as a "catastrophic scenario".

Our correspondent says his outlook is similar to many national leaders, who hate the thought that Southern Sudan becoming independent could set a precedent.

Meanwhile, the new head of the international peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Unamid, says he wants it to become more involved in mediation.

In an interview with the BBC, Ibrahim Gambari said he was hopeful a solution to the conflict could be found.

Although the war between north and south ended officially in 2005, tensions and mistrust continue.

Sudan map

Some 2,000 people died in ethnic clashes in the south last year - more than in Darfur's low-level conflict.

Southern politicians routinely blame northern allies of President Omar al-Bashir for stirring up trouble in an attempt to force the referendum to be abandoned.

But northern officials deny the allegations and last week Mr Bashir surprised many by saying he would accept the result of the referendum - even if the south opted for independence.

As well as the referendum, all of Sudan will vote in an election in April - the first multi-party national vote in a generation.

The civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south claimed the lives of some 1.5 million people.

Graphs of development in Sudan
Southern Sudan All Sudan
Population: 7.5m to 9.7m Population: 42.2m
Area: 640,000 sq km Area: 2.5m sq km
Maternal mortality: 1,700 deaths per 100,000 births Maternal mortality: 1,107 deaths per 100,000 births
Access to clean water: 50% Access to clean water: 70%
Life expectancy: 42 years Life expectancy: 58.92 years
Sources: CIA, UN, UNFPA

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