|The referendum will decide whether the south will split from the north and become an independent state [AFP]
A leading US senator says Sudanese leaders have assured him they are committed to holding a referendum on southern independence on time.
John Kerry, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Sunday he had met senior Sudanese officials in the north and south during a three-day visit to Africa's largest country.
"I received a letter written in clear words confirming that the government of Sudan is committed to conduct southern Sudan referendum on 9th of coming January, and committed to its outcome," Kerry said in Khartoum, the capital.
The vote will decide whether the south will split from the north and become an independent state.
The referendum was promised by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was signed in 2005, ending decades of the north-south civil war.
Under the agreement, the south formed its own government, which has limited autonomy and in which the north has a small representation. South Sudan is represented in the government of national unity, which is led by the Khartoum-based National Congress Party (NCP).
In addition to the broader referendum on the south's independence, a small region called Abyei, which sits astride the oil-rich border between south and north Sudan, will vote on whether it should belong to Southern Sudan or north Sudan.
Playing 'positive role'
Senior officials of the NCP have said it is "not possible" to hold the referendum on the future of Abyei on time and have suggested it be delayed for months or the territorial row be settled without a poll.
Kerry said the US was committed to playing a "positive role" in ensuring a peaceful outcome to the vote.
Leaders in Sudan's north and south, he said, faced a "critical choice" between "peaceful co-existence or a return to chaos and war".
On Saturday, Kerry visited Juba - capital of the semi-autonomous South Sudan - and met officials of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party. He also met Ali Osman Taha, Sudan's vice-president, and representatives of President Omar al-Bashir's ruling NCP.
Before the visit to the south, Kerry had warned of tougher US sanctions against Sudan if the governments of the north or south placed obstacles in the way of the referendum. Sudan has been under US sanctions since 1997.
"I want to be clear: We want the government [in Khartoum] to tackle the referendum and respect the decision of the south," he said.
He also urged the mainly Arab north and Christian and animist south to overcome obstacles to implementing the 2005 peace agreement.
South Sudan is struggling to recover from Africa's longest civil conflict, which was fuelled by ethnicity, ideology, religion and resources such as oil and left an estimated two million people dead.