, JUBA, Sep 25 – South Sudanese on Saturday welcomed support by world leaders for their upcoming vote on potential independence, but warned promises must be followed through on the ground.
On Friday, US President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon led international warnings that votes must be held on time and without violence.
But people in the southern capital Juba warned practical support must also be offered.
"Such statements are welcome but also have been said many times before, and still we find ourselves in a problem situation," said Lokulenge Lole of the Southern Sudan Civic Education Organization, which is working to raise awareness about the referendum.
"What we need from the international community is more than just lip service, but to see practical support here on the ground," he added.
South Sudan is scheduled to vote on January 9 on whether to become independent or to remain part of a united Sudan, with many believing it will opt to split Africa\’s largest nation in two.
The referendum was a key provision of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between north and south Sudan that ended a decades-long civil war, during which about two million people were killed.
Another referendum will take place simultaneously in the contested oil-rich region of Abyei, where residents will have to decide whether they want to be part of north or south Sudan. The commission to run that vote has not yet been appointed.
"What is really needed is to keep the pressure on to ensure the votes are done on time," said Bishop Arkanjelo Wani Lemi, a leader of the South Sudan Religious Leaders Referendum Initiative.
"Our hopes and prayers are that the international community does not now sit back but instead that they stand by their words," Lemi added, calling specifically on the guarantors of the peace agreement — including the United States, Britain, Norway and Kenya — to "keep their promises."
Preparations for the referenda are seriously behind schedule. Many diplomats fear south Sudan could declare unilateral independence if there is a delay, sparking a new civil war in the country.
"It is a good sign that the international community seems aware of the danger that is awaiting Sudan," said Kur Ayuen, manager of the My Referendum for Freedom pressure group, which is campaigning to ensure the referendum takes place.
"But if pressure like this had been there since the beginning of the CPA, then there would not be the fear of delay of the referendum as we have now," Kur added.
"However, we hope now that the international community will maintain the momentum and keep the pressure on the two parties, to stop the vote being deliberately blocked," he said.
Obama told a special UN meeting that what happens in Sudan "in the days ahead may decide whether people who have endured too much war, move towards peace or slip backwards to bloodshed."
Ban Ki-moon called for the vote to be carried out "free of intimidation" and for both "parties to accept the results and to plan for the consequences."
People out shopping on the streets of Juba said the pressure was welcome.
"We have been waiting for six years since the peace was signed for only one thing — the referendum," said Mary Mourdat, a secretary.
"This support is better late than never, but the time is short now, and we pray the referendum can be achieved."