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Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Sudan MPs pass key referendum law

Sudanese demonstrators demanding electoral reforms, ahead of next year's crucial national elections, in the capital Khartoum on 7 December
There have been angry demonstrations this month about electoral reforms

Sudan's parliament has passed a key law paving the way for a referendum on independence for the oil-rich south.

The move ends months of wrangling between the north and south about how the referendum should be conducted.

Last week, southern politicians walked out of parliament in a row over where southerners would be able to vote.

The referendum, scheduled for January 2011, is a crucial part of the peace deal signed nearly five years ago which ended two decades of civil war.

The 2005 peace agreement saw President Omar al-Bashir's northern National Congress Party (NCP) going into government with former Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) rebels from the south.

It is widely predicted that the south will vote for independence but there are concerns that tensions will increase in the run-up to the referendum and a general election in April.

'Second-class citizens'

Mr Bashir and SPLM leader Salva Kiir reached a deal on the referendum earlier this month in crisis talks that followed angry demonstrations by southerners about electoral reforms.

Map

But when northern politicians tried to amend a section of the referendum bill about where people could vote last week, southern MPs walked out of parliament.

This prompted the United States to put pressure on the NCP.

The law passed on Tuesday now stipulates that southerners living in the north will be allowed to vote there if they were born after 1956 but those born before that date will have to register and vote in the south.

The SPLM had feared the north would manipulate the vote if southerners who had not lived in southern Sudan since independence in 1956 had been allowed to vote anywhere.

"Anybody can claim: yes I have my grandparents from the south... unless you go and verify yourself in southern Sudan, this can be abused," SPLM MP Aligu Manawa told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

BBC Africa analyst Mary Harper says Sudan's politicians try - in public at least - to talk of enduring unity and good relations between the north and south.

But they sometimes slip up and Mr Kiir recently warned southerners that if they voted against independence they would become second-class citizens in their own country, she says.

There are also problems regarding the border between the north and south, as the status of some areas has not yet been clearly defined.

And there are serious tensions in southern Sudan, with different ethnic groups fighting over land.

More than 2,000 people have been killed and 250,000 people displaced this year alone.

The 22-year war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south claimed the lives of some 1.5 million people.



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