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Al Arabiya - December 14, 2010

Sudan has run out of time to organize a referendum on the future of its disputed Abyei region, meaning the North and South must agree to a political solution for the oil-rich territory, a senior U.S. official said late Monday as the United Nations confirmed that north Sudan forces had bombed the south this month.

Scott Gration, the Obama administration's special envoy for Sudan, also said veteran U.S. diplomat Dane Smith had been appointed to deal with Darfur, where violence continues even as the international community focuses on Sudan's January plebiscites.

Gration said the United States believed Sudan was on course for a Jan. 9 referendum on independence for the South but that a simultaneous vote on the future of Abyei, which both North and South claim, was no longer possible, according to Reuters.

"I think we've passed the opportunity for there to be a poll," Gration told reporters. "It will take a political solution to resolve this issue."

The fate of Abyei has emerged as one of the most serious potential flashpoints between North and South Sudan, which are bound by the 2005 peace deal that ended their long civil war to hold two referendums on Jan. 9 on whether the South becomes independent and which region Abyei joins.

Most political analysts expect the South to vote for independence and the two sides are now trying to thrash out a deal on Abyei, which straddles the border and contains at least one significant oilfield -- Defra, part of a block run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a consortium led by China's CNPC.

Ongoing discussions

Gration said Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir, the president of the South, were personally involved in discussions. Analysts say a potential deal could involve either partitioning the region or allowing the South to take it over while compensating the North.

Gration said the United States and others were working hard to defuse any potential violence over Abyei.

"This is probably not a situation where either side will be happy," Gration said. "What we're looking for is a solution that probably makes both sides angry but neither side mad."

Gration said the United States remained worried about the western region of Darfur and was naming Smith, a seasoned State Department Africa hand, to work with the United Nations, the African Union and the Khartoum government on ways to stabilize the situation.

"It gives us that additional focus, that additional specific effort that we need to be able to turn the tide here in Darfur," Gration said.

Gration, who recently traveled to Darfur, said the United States held the government of Sudan primarily responsible for improving conditions in Darfur but said the rebel groups must also refrain from violence and permit humanitarian access.

Conformation of south's attacks

The United Nations, meanwhile, said that forces from Sudan's north bombed the south this month, the first independent confirmation of attacks which have raised tension before the referendum.

The southern ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), has accused the north of a series of bombing raids on its territory in November and December which it said were aimed at derailing the referendum. However, until Monday the U.N. peacekeeping mission had not commented on the reports.

"After verification it was established by the (joint ceasefire commission) members that air attacks took place in the vicinity of Timsaha in Western Bahr al-Ghazal and no casualties have been reported," said U.N. spokesman Kouider Zerrouk.

Only Khartoum's army has an air force. The joint ceasefire commission has officers from the armies of the north and south as well as the U.N. peacekeeping mission (UNMIS).

The northern army had denied the bombing raids and was not immediately available to comment on Monday. UNMIS said it was referring to air raids this month, not the November attacks.

The SPLM has said it would not reply militarily to what it called a provocation from the north, to keep the referendum on track. Sudan's north-south civil war claimed about 2 million lives and destabilized much of east Africa.


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