KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's vice-president said a referendum on the future of the disputed Abyei area might not go ahead unless leaders settled differences over the vote, raising the stakes in troubled north-south territorial talks.
Sudan is about three months away from the scheduled start of the vote on whether oil-producing Abyei should join north or south Sudan -- a plebiscite promised as part of the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
After a five-year period that was supposed to rebuild relations between the former foes, the two sides are still at loggerheads over issues ranging from how to share oil revenues to the position of their border.
Analysts have warned there is a risk of a return to war if there is any disruption to the Abyei vote -- and a separate and simultaneous vote on whether the south as a whole should secede or stay in Sudan.
Second Vice-President Ali Osman Taha's comments, the first indication from Sudan's northern-based leadership that the Abyei vote might not go ahead, is likely to antagonise southerners who have refused to accept a delay and increasingly talk of a split.
Teams from north and south were meeting in Addis Ababa on Monday to try to agree how the Abyei referendum should be conducted.
"If there is no agreement there will be no room for a referendum in Abyei. The challenge is to reach an agreement that will allow the referendum to take place as scheduled," Taha told a news conference in Khartoum on Monday.
Abyei's chief administrator Deng Arop Kuol, a member of the south's dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) said he did not want to comment on Taha's comment in detail. "But while there are talks ongoing, the vice president should have withheld this statement," Kuol told Reuters.
The two sides, who have fought over the territory in the past two years, are bickering over who is qualified to vote, the membership of a commission to organise the referendum and other differences.
One of the key outstanding issues is which communities will count as Abyei residents with the right to vote. Its land is used by Dinka Ngok tribespeople, associated with the south, and Arab Misseriya nomads who drive livestock through the area.
Last week the Misseriya said it would fight anyone who prevented its members voting in the referendum.
The SPLM, the main southern party, has accused the north of trying to disrupt the whole peace process to keep control of the south's oil, a charge dismissed by Khartoum.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Addis Ababa talks would last for several days and that the discussions were both direct and intense.
"We're satisfied that they've come prepared to engage. These are, I understand, very direct and spirited disucssions under way and we hope that through these discussions in the coming days we can reach an agreement that allows the referendum in Abyei to go forward," Crowley told a news briefing.
He declined to give an explicit reaction to Taha's warning that the Abyei referendum could not take place if no agreement was reached.