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Preparations for an independence referendum for Sudan's oil-rich south are behind schedule, putting the country at risk of renewed civil war, diplomats and activists say.

Plans for the January 11 vote, meant to decide the fate of the Southern Sudan, were signed as part of a 2005 peace deal between the government and southern fighters, and any postponement could reignite civil war in Africa's largest country.

"The major thing about Sudan is that time is short, and that the ninth of January is a target date which we need to understand the full meaning of," Jonas Gahr Stoere, the Norwegian foreign minister, said on Sunday.

The government, dominated by forces from the country's north, said that the referendum should go ahead as scheduled.

"We hope to begin registration in mid-October," Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil, the head of the commission organising the referendum, told the Reuters news agency.

"If there are no delays, no obstructions, no hair-splitting, if the commission works smoothly, if we don't get interventions from different parties, if people let us alone, it is just feasible that we will meet the 9th January deadline.

"People should not run away thinking that it is so easy that we are confident. We are doing all we can. We are working night and day."

High-level meeting

A high-level meeting on Sudan is due to take place at the UN on Friday.

Activists say international actors need to do more to stop the country from descending back into conflict.

"It is time for those governments who promised to help implement the peace agreement to develop a package of pressure and incentives to persuade the Sudanese parties to broker peace and not war," Albakir Mukhtar Alafif, an activist with Sudan 365, a rights group, said in a statement.

His organisation called on the UN, the US, Egypt and other states which supported the peace deal to "honour their pledge to Sudan and to prevent a diplomatic meltdown".

Southern Sudan, where many are embittered by war and perceived exploitation by the north, is widely expected to vote for succession. Analysts warn that a messy outcome to the referendum and its aftermath could spark a return to civil war, with dangerous consequences for Sudan and surrounding countries.

Aid agencies estimate that two million people died in Sudan's north-south conflict over oil, religion, ethnicity and ideology.

Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa, reporting from south Sudan, said: "The war may be over but many southerners say they don't trust people from the North."

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan's president, who is facing charges of genocide from the Hague-based International Criminal Court, has promised to accept results of the referendum but says he and his northern National Congress Party (NCP) will campaign to persuade southerners to choose unity.

'Huge difference'

Most of the country's oil lies in the south, although the north has the refineries, pipelines and Port Sudan, the only commercial outlet to the Red Sea and crucial overseas markets.

"The huge difference between the bustling north and the poor south is one reason why some are so angry. The capital Khartoum is a hive of activity," our correspondent said.

Khalil, head of the referendum commission, said the organisers would spend the coming weeks getting registration forms printed, recruiting 10,500 field workers to carry out the count and finalising the commission's budget.

Commission members were only announced in late June, and its secretary-general nominated on September 2, after months of wrangling between northern and southern leaders.

It remains unclear how officials will identify southerners eligible to vote in long-standing northern refugee settlements and communities along the ill-defined north-south border.

"[T]he north and south have to do their active work of preparing for pre-referendum issues," Norway's foreign minister said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies