"We are hoping that the negotiation will lead to sustainable peace not in Sudan only but over all the region," Idriss Mohammed Abdel Qadir, the NCP negotiator, said.

Post-referendum options

In depth

 Artists campaign for Sudan unity
 Sudan's growing south divide
 Key players in Sudan politics
 Prelude to south Sudan referendum
 The Sudan Debate

An African Union panel headed by Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, has given leaders four options to consider:

  1. Creation of two countries which would negotiate a framework of co-operation in a confederal arrangement.
  2. Two separate countries with soft borders that permit freedom of movement for both people and goods.
  3. Total separation with citizens needing visas to cross the border.
  4. Continued north-south unity if southerners choose that option.

The SPLM said the referendum would allow the south to "reset" its troubled relationship with the north, whether southerners choose unity or separation.

"If the choice is separation, then we will be ensuring that there will be good co-operation between the two independent states. It could take the form of a confederation. It could take the form of a common market," he said.

Also on the agenda was the citizenship of their populations. Refugees International, an international refugee aid group, warned last monththat southerners in the north and northerners in the south might be left stateless and vulnerable to attacks should there be a split.

Share assets

Many commentators say southerners, embittered by decades of civil war, are likely to vote for separation in the referendum.

The parties said they would spend the months leading up tp the referendum working out how they would share oil and other assets, as well as the burden of Sudan's national debt, after the vote.

Most of Sudan's proven oil reserves are south of the border, but Khartoum currently gets half the revenues from southern oil under the terms of a 2005 peace deal.

The south would have to reach some sort of agreement with Khartoum, even after a split, as the only pipelines run through the north to the Red Sea.