|Southern Sudanese are expected to vote for the separation in the much awaited referendum [AFP]
Sudan has announced November 14 as the start date for voter registration for a referendum on independence for the south, amid fears over the amount of time left to organise the vote.
Under a 2005 peace agreement that ended Africa's longest-running civil war, the south is to vote on January 9 on whether to become independent or to remain part of a united Sudan.
"The timeframe is a really big problem," Chan Reec, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, said. "We are doing what is humanly possible."
Most analysts expect voters to opt to break away, but there have been no large-scale independent opinion polls.
Progress on preparing the vote has been seriously delayed and many observers have expressed fears that the process will not be completed on time.
"Registration will start on November 14 and continue for three weeks, and will end on 4 December," Reec, who also heads the referendum commission's bureau in the south, said.
The president of the south's autonomous regional government, Salva Kiir, has said the January 9 date is "sacrosanct" and has called on people not to lose the hard-fought opportunity to vote for independence.
Reec said the deadline would still be met but that even if there were "unseen reasons" that delayed it, he was confident the vote would go ahead.
"I am still optimistic that if we are all registered, everybody has his or her card, then we can be sure that this exercise is going to happen no matter what," Reec said in the southern regional capital Juba.
"It may be a matter of delay for one week or two but, since everybody has a card, I do not see any reason to be pessimistic."
Campaigning is due to start on December 7 and the definitive electoral register is to be completed on December 31, far later than foreseen under the peace agreement which stipulated that it should be ublished 90 days before the vote.
"You can see that we will have no Christmas this year, because we will be working," Reec said.
Voter registration material is being printed in South Africa, while ballot papers will also be printed outside Sudan with security devices fitted to prevent fraud, Reec said.
Polling will take place across Sudan but only those able to prove they come from the south will be eligible to vote.
Voting will also take place in eight other countries - neighbouring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt, as well as in Australia, Britain, the US and Canada.
In those countries, the intergovernmental International Organisation for Migration (IOM) will assist the registration process, Reec said.
The international community has expressed growing concern about the preparations for the vote.
Western diplomats have warned that if the vote does not go ahead on schedule, southern leaders might declare independence unilaterally, potentially triggering renewed civil war.
Barack Obama, the US president, told a UN meeting last month that "the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance." He said the referendum must be peaceful, on time and credible.