Salva Kiir, the southern Sudanese president, was one of the first to register for the January referendum [AFP] 

The UN Security Council is holding a meeting centred on ensuring that south Sudan's referendum, which will decide if the region should secede from the country's north, will be held in a timely and peaceful manner as scheduled on January 9.

Among those attending the meeting in New York on Tuesday are Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. 

The UN has stepped up calls for a timely and peaceful vote as registration centres opened for the referendum on Monday.

"All the 2,625 registration centres in the south except two were operational, and those will open in the coming days," said Aleu Garang Aleu, a spokesman for the Southern Sudanese Referendum Bureau, which is running the vote in the south.

The referendum is the final phase of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of war between the Arab-majority north, and the south made up mostly of Christians and animists.

Many worry that problems with the vote could set off violence between the two regions, even a new civil war.

Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, said on Monday that relief agencies are stockpiling supplies in areas of Southern Sudan before the vote.

"Work is already ongoing in Sudan to preposition humanitarian assistance near potential hot spots in southern Sudan and in the border areas," Amos, who just returned from a six-day visit to the country, said.

Amos noted concerns that the balloting could prompt a massive return of southerners who had migrated to the north seeking better lives and said a small number of them were beginning to move back to the south.

"But the conditions need to be appropriate and their safety and security must be guaranteed,'' she said.

"Ensuring that the returns take place in a free and principled manner is, of course, the responsibility of the government.''

Source: Agencies