KHARTOUM, Sudan, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- The future of Sudan, Africa's largest country and one widely expected to split in two in a planned national referendum in January, lies in the oil-rich region of Abyei that straddles the ill-defined border between north and south.
The prospect of renewed civil war between the Arab Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south looms as the two sides struggle for control of Abyei, which many believe could be the trigger for further bloodshed.
The region is supposed to have a referendum Jan. 9 on Abyei's future, whether it would be part of the north or south, on the same day as a wider referendum throughout the south on whether it will remain part of Sudan or become independent.
These planned votes were part of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended four decades of civil war between north and south, one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in Africa.
But talks between north and south to set up the Abyei plebiscite have failed to produce any agreement. The north now wants to postpone the referendum. Southern leaders insist it be conducted and a U.N delegation is in Khartoum to press the Arab-led government not to disrupt the referendum.
"The centrifugal forces pulling apart the country for a generation are accelerating," warned Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. special envoy to Sudan now at Georgetown University, Washington.
The south as a whole is expected to vote overwhelmingly for separation in January but without a plebiscite in Abyei the southern referendum will be meaningless.
Some 75 percent of Sudan's proven oil reserves of 6.3 billion barrels lie in the south. However, the pipeline that pumps the crude to export terminals and refineries run through the north, which leaves the south dependent on Khartoum to sell the oil.
Sudan produces 500,000 barrels of oil a day, earning about $8 billion for the southern government since 2005 and $13 billion for Khartoum, which keeps all the revenue from oil fields in the north.
Without Abyei's oil, the south's ability to economically sustain independence would be weakened. Khartoum has been making every effort to avoid losing the southern oil. Without it the north would face severe economic problems.
Abyei's boundaries were redrawn by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international tribunal in The Hague, in July 2009 following heavy fighting in the region in May 2008.
In what was seen as a major test of the CPA, the tribunal gave the north several of Abyei's oil fields, reversing a 2005 ruling by a panel of experts established under the peace agreement.
But neither side was satisfied with the decision. The tribunal's rulings are binding but it has no enforcement powers.
U.N. officials have reported that both the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the former rebel army which has ruled the south since the peace agreement, and the government in Khartoum have been violating security arrangements.
Both sides have been reported to be building weapons stockpiles for what is increasingly seen as an inevitable return to war if the CPA breaks down.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, deeply distrusted by the south, has deployed government forces, known as "oil police" in some of Abyei's oil fields. This is widely seen as a signal he plans to fight for control of the oil if the south secedes.
Months of foot-dragging by Khartoum on such key issues as border demarcation, revenue-sharing and debt repayment, which under the CPA must be decided before the voting, have increased suspicions that Bashir is doing all he can to sabotage the referendums.
In February, the Financial Times reported the government of South Sudan made a conciliatory gesture toward the north by saying it would consider giving half its oil revenues to Khartoum for a limited period if the south became independent.
"It's in the interest of the south not to see the northern economy collapse," Luka Biong Deng, the southern minister of presidential affairs, explained.
The Financial Times observed: "By continuing to share the proceeds, the south could prevent the north's economy from suffering and avoid a dangerous flashpoint. If the south is forced to choose between defending independence with blood or buying it with oil, some would prefer the latter."
But this hasn't produced any compromise and the clock is ticking.