WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday Sudan's elections were neither free nor fair but it will deal with the victors to try to settle internal disputes before a referendum that could bring independence to southern Sudan.
Early results from the election, the oil-producing nation's first in 24 years, suggest President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his party are headed for a strong win in presidential and parliamentary polls marred by boycotts and alleged fraud.
Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face charges of war crimes in Darfur, scored majorities of up to 90 percent in a sample of results from northern Sudan reported by state media.
"This was not a free and fair election," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "It did not, broadly speaking, meet international standards."
"That said, I think we recognize that the election is a very important step" toward carrying out a 2005 peace deal that gave the south autonomy, a share of oil revenues and a route to independence via referendum by January 2011, he told reporters.
The so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement was designed to end a 22-year civil war between the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum in Sudan's mostly Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south.
Crowley said many of those elected in the Sudanese poll, however flawed it may have been, would play important roles in whether "we have a credible referenda process that, quite honestly, is likely to yield the emergence of a new country."
His comment was an allusion to the widely held expectation that southern Sudan will choose to secede from the north.
"So while we understand that there were flaws and failures in terms of this electoral process, we will recognize that there is a lot of work to be done," he said. "The United States will continue to work with the government in the north, the government in the south, as we move forward with ... the vitally important referenda that'll happen in January of next year."
In a separate statement, the United States, Britain and Norway said Sudan's elections were marred by poor preparation and other suspected irregularities and they called on Sudanese officials to take to fully implement the 2005 peace accord.
"We note initial assessments of the electoral process from independent observers, including the judgment that the elections failed to meet international standards," the three countries, guarantors of the peace deal, said in a statement.
"We are reassured that voting passed reasonably peacefully, reportedly with significant participation, but share their serious concerns about weak logistical and technical preparations and reported irregularities in many parts of Sudan," the statement said.
European Union and Carter Center observers have said the elections did not meet international standards, but stopped short of echoing opposition charges of vote-rigging.
The three countries noted the limited access of observer missions in Darfur and voiced regret that electoral officials did not do more to address such problems before the voting.
"It is essential to build upon the progress made so far to expand democratic space in Sudan," the statement said, adding that Sudanese officials should "draw lessons" to ensure future polls and a referendum due next year on independence for South Sudan do not suffer from the same flaws.