- Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has vowed to back the independence of the south government if the southerners can vote for autonomy in the referendum next year.
Marking the fifth anniversary of the peace agreement in 2005 that paved the way for a general election, due in April, and a referendum on independence for the oil-rich south in 2011, he said his ruling Northern Congress Party would be the first to welcome such a decision.
The mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement on January 2005 to end a 22-year civil war that was fuelled by religious, political and economic differences and has cost at least two million lives.
The Sudanese parliament ratified a key law in December setting up the planned 2011 referendum on southern independence after northern and southern leaders overcame a dispute that had threatened to derail the peace deal.
Parliament also passed a law for a referendum in the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei -- on the border between north and south Sudan -- to let residents decide if they want to remain part of the north or join the south.
South Sudan's president Salva Kiir, who has previously expressed personal support for southern independence, stressed the need for peace, whatever the referendum's outcome.
President al-Bashir is subject to an international arrest warrant for war crimes in the country's Darfur region. And many in the south believe he and his allies have been arming rival ethnic groups in the south to destabilise the region.
The election in April will be the first multi-party national election in 24 years. Mr Bashir is standing for president. Mr Kiir's SPLM party confirmed last week that he would seek re-election to the post of Southern Sudan president rather than national leader.
The SPLM is instead fielding another candidate for the post of national president, which correspondents says shows that the party's priority is independence for the south.
The Darfur conflict has killed more than 300, 000 people and forced over 2 million people from their homes.
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