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Obama lobbies regional leaders as Sudan vote looms

By Alister Bull

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, who has pushed Sudan over an upcoming referendum and the crisis in Darfur, has written to leaders in the region stressing U.S. commitment to a peaceful vote, the White House said on Sunday.

With the referendum on southern independence just three weeks away and violence in the south flaring, Obama is trying to galvanize the region to pressure Khartoum to make sure the vote takes place on time and the outcome is respected.

"President Obama has made it clear that Sudan is one of the administration's top priorities; we have a vision of hope, peace and prosperity for the people of Sudan," said White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.

Confirming Obama had written to a number of leaders about the referendum and the situation in Darfur, Hammer said this was part of an ongoing diplomatic push to emphasize the importance that Washington places on a peaceful Sudan.

The January 9 referendum on independence for south Sudan was promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended a civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the oil-rich south, where most follow traditional beliefs and Christianity.

A successful southern referendum could bring a conclusion to one of Africa's most bitter conflicts, which has rumbled on since around the time of Sudan's independence in the 1950s.

"We believe an on-time referendum is the best means to prevent a resumption of full scale war between north and south Sudan," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.


The letters were recently sent to leaders of Libya, Egypt, Chad, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria and Rwanda, as well as to the African Union, Vietor said.

"We have, and will continue to, put an enormous amount of effort toward ensuring that the referendum goes off on time, peacefully, and that the results are respected," said Hammer.

The White House last week condemned attacks on civilians in south Sudan which the southern ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, blame on the north.

Southern leaders have accused President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his ruling northern National Congress Party of plotting to disrupt the vote to keep control of oil fields in the south.

On Sunday, Bashir said in a speech that the country would adopt an Islamic constitution if the south split away in the referendum.]

Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court to face charges of atrocities in Darfur, but he dismisses the court as part of a Western plot. Fresh fighting in Darfur between rebels and Sudan's army have displaced as many as 12,000 people, peacekeepers said on Sunday.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Vicki Allen)