, JOHANNESBURG, Dec 9 – The head of a group of international statesmen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, on Wednesday called for a peaceful independence referendum in Sudan next month amid fears the vote could provoke bloodshed.
"This is a critical time for the people of Sudan and the African continent. I pray that voting will be peaceful, but if things go badly, it’s likely that there will be further conflict," said Tutu, chairman of The Elders Group.
A referendum is due to be held on January 9 that could see Sudan\’s autonomous and mostly Christian south break away from the predominantly Arab and Muslim north.
The Elders, a grouping brought together three years ago by former South Africa president Nelson Mandela, includes former US President Jimmy Carter and ex-UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
Mandela\’s third wife, the Mozambican children and women\’s rights activitist Graca Machel, another member of the Elders, said the referendum result must be honoured.
"It is crucial that the will of the people is respected," she said. "Sudan\’s leaders throughout the country should protect and uphold the rights of all voters."
The United States, Britain and Norway are working to encourage south and northern Sudan to follow through on referendums and other terms of a 2005 peace deal that ended Sudan\’s two-decade civil war, Africa\’s longest such conflict.