The tender to print ballots has now been extended till December 5. It could delay the January 9 vote [Reuters]

Sudan has asked the UN to re-open a tender to print ballots for the south's referendum on secession.

Diplomats and the commission planning the vote said on Wednesday that any delay could make it impossible to hold the vote on January 9 as scheduled.

The tender to print ballots closed in mid-November and has now been re-opened till December 5.

"The commission just requested the bidding be reopened for some time to enable Sudanese printing companies to apply if they think they can compete," George Makuer, acting spokesman for the commission, said.

A senior official in the commission told Reuters news agency it had taken five weeks to print the registration materials.

The UN has said it needs up to three weeks to distribute voting materials in the south, which has little infrastructure.

"Everyone is in somewhat of a panic about this. It seems we may have lost the January 9 date," one diplomatic source in Khartoum said.

The United Nations would not comment on why it had agreed to reopen the bid, and Sudanese observers said they had warned against the move but had been ignored.

"They now have to move the polling back 10 days," Ali Mohamed, spokesman for the SuGDE observers, said. "Really this is a political issue."

Mohamed said northern Sudan's ruling National Congress Party and the southern ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) would need to make a decision on the date.

An extension of one week for the registration has also put pressure on the vote deadline, which the SPLM has said is a red line, since they fear that a significant delay could see violence erupt in the south.

Southern officials said they wanted the voting and registration materials printed in a neutral location outside Sudan to avoid any possibility of manipulation.

Sudan's government printing press was at the centre of a scandal during the April elections, which sparked a boycott by many opposition parties. It won tenders to print ballot papers and registration materials despite not being the cheapest option, which the opposition said opened the door to fraud by the ruling party.

More than 2.1 million people had registered to vote in the south up to Monday, 56 per cent of eligible voters in the region. Registration will close next week.

Source: Agencies