KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan said it would hold a referendum on whether to unify the three states of its Darfur territory into one region, a contentious issue at the heart of its eight-year conflict.
Darfur is currently divided into three states with their own governors and administrations — North, South and West Darfur.
Analysts say Sudan’s government has long resisted the idea of unifying the territory, for fear of giving Darfuris too large a power base and possibly encouraging separatism.
Many from Darfur’s large Fur tribe and other groups resent the three-way split, saying it sliced up their territory, turned them into minority players in each state and allowed Khartoum to divide and rule them.
Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 with the marginalisation of the territory as one of their main complaints.
Sudan has said it has been stepping up efforts to resolve the Darfur crisis and will present the vote as a key concession. No one was immediately available to comment from Darfur’s rebel groups.
Sudan’s leading Darfur negotiator Ghazi Salaheddin announced the vote in a news conference in which he laid out the government’s Darfur strategy including, he said, negotiations, consultations with Darfuris and development
“We will start arrangement for a referendum to determine the administration situation of Darfur,” he said.
Washington has promised Khartoum incentives — including help with cancelling for its near $40 billion debt and easing of sanctions — if it settles the conflict and allows the peaceful secession of the south.
South Sudan, roughly the same size as a unified Darfur, fought the north through decades on civil war until a 2005 peace deal gave it the right to a referendum on whether to secede.
Southerners in January overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the north in January and are due to leave, with their oil reserves, on July 9.
Organising a Darfur referendum would prove a huge logistical task. Eight years of fighting has turned large parts of the territory into no-go areas, plagued by bandits, kidnappers and warring tribes.
On Monday around 30 unknown armed men attacked Um Dersay refugee camp in North Darfur state, killing a 16-year-old girl and burning houses, Darfur’s UNAMID peacekeepers said.
Salaheddin said the referendum could take place in three months and would be drawn up according to the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement — a failed accord, recently abandoned by the only significant rebel group to sign it.
Under the agreement, all sides agreed to hold a referendum to determine “the permanent status of Darfur”. Voters would be given a choice between keeping the status quo and forming one Darfur region containing the three states.
The International Criminal Court has issues arrest warrants for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to face charges of masterminding genocide and war crimes during his counter- insurgency campaign in Darfur.