KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A senior Sudanese official on Thursday hit back at comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Sudan was facing a "ticking time-bomb" in the countdown to the "inevitable" secession of the country's south.
People from Sudan's oil-producing south are four months away from the scheduled start of a referendum on whether to stay united with north Sudan or declare independence -- a vote promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
Analysts say southerners overwhelmingly want independence and there is a risk of a return to conflict if the north tries to delay or obstruct the vote to keep control of the south's oil.
Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations think tank on Wednesday that it was "inevitable" southerners would vote for secession and that Washington, together with international partners, needed to work out ways to persuade the north to accept that result peacefully.
Rabie Abdelati, from the north's dominant National Congress Party (NCP), told Reuters on Thursday Clinton was "incorrect" and that Sudan would reject any foreign attempts to interfere in the poll.
"We are working to achieve unity up to the last moment. We don't think secession is inevitable," he said. "Everything is going very smoothly. We don't see any sign that there will be a problem between the north and the south, that there will be war."
Abdelati said most southerners favoured unity but their voices were drowned out by a few separatist leaders from the south's former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). Nobody was immediately available for comment from the SPLM.
Northerners and southerners remain split on how they would divide oil revenues after the vote -- most of the country's crude reserves lie in the south but the north has the bulk of the infrastructure.
Clinton said southern independence would be difficult for northerners to accept, adding: "We've got to figure out some ways to make it worth their while to peacefully accept an independent south," without specifying possible incentives.
"We do not need any incentives or temptations from the U.S., Europe or France ... There is no need to accept any interference," Abdelati said on Thursday.
There have been widespread concerns that Sudan had not left itself enough time to organise the potentially explosive plebiscite.
The members of a commission to organise the referendum were only announced in late June, and its secretary general appointed last week, after months of wrangling between northern and southern leaders.
Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who leads the NCP, has promised to accept the result of the vote but says he will campaign to persuade southerners to choose unity.
Aid agencies estimate 2 million people died in Sudan's north-south conflict over oil, religion, ethnicity and ideology. The war destabilised much of east Africa.