NAIROBI, Kenya — Africa’s biggest country is entering a critical moment in its history with a referendum starting on Sunday that is likely to see Sudan split into two, giving birth to the world’s newest state.

Fears of a resumption of the long and deadly civil wars that have blighted Sudan’s post-independence era were dampened this week by some conciliatory rhetoric from a surprising source: Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Bashir heads an Islamist regime in Khartoum and is wildly unpopular in the predominantly Christian South where he prosecuted a war using indiscriminate aerial bombardments and scorched earth raids by Arab militias.

Yet during a rare visit to Juba, the South's capital-in-waiting, in the days before Sunday’s referendum on self-determination for the South, Bashir said he would accept partition if that is the will of the southern people, 3.9 million of whom have registered to vote.

“Imposing unity by force doesn’t work,” Bashir said in a speech. “We want unity between the North and the South but this doesn’t mean opposing the desire of the southern citizen.”

Bashir said Khartoum is ready to recognize and support an independent South, saying, “The benefit we get from unity, we can also get it from two separate states.”

“I personally will be sad if Sudan splits,” he added. “But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides.”

The referendum vote that begins Sunday and is scheduled to last for a week was stipulated in internationally-brokered peace deal of 2005 that ended one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest conflicts fought over resources, religion and ethnicity.

During more than two decades of war, 2 million people died and 4 million more fled their homes to escape the fighting.

Bashir’s recent conciliatory comments toward his former enemies in the South mark an abrupt turnaround that will help reduce fears of a return to widespread conflict.

In September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Sudan as “a ticking time bomb” but last weekend a State Department spokesman said he was now “optimistic” about the coming referendum.

The reason for Bashir’s visit to Juba this week was to discuss with southern leader Salva Kiir some of the many issues that have not been resolved during the six years between the peace deal and Sunday’s referendum.

Top of the list is how to share Sudan’s estimated 6 billion barrels of oil, a bounty that analysts say divides, but might also unite the two parties.

Khartoum and Juba both rely on revenues from the 500,000 barrels of crude a day that Sudan pumps. Four-fifths of that oil comes from southern fields close to the border, but all the pipelines head north so for either side to realize the value of the resource they have to work together.

“Oil is the biggest disincentive to conflict because they need each other,” said Zach Vertin, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group. Under the peace deal revenues have, at least on paper, been evenly shared but it is unclear what might happen after independence.

Besides the oil there are other equally thorny and fundamental issues such as the exact location of the border and whether the disputed oil-producing territory of Abyei will lie to its north or south. How will precious water resources in a parched land be shared? What will be the citizenship and nationality of southerners in the north and northerners in the south after the referendum? Who should carry what share of Sudan’s national debt burden?

The North and South will struggle to resolve all of these sticking points within the six months between Sunday’s referendum and July 9, the expected date for southern independence to be officially recognized.

“The progress is good but the pace is slow,” Vertin said.

In an upbeat assessment, referendum officials said everything was now set for the vote. “We are really 100 percent prepared,” said Justice Chan Reec Madut, a spokesman for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission.

High-level teams of international observers are beginning to arrive in Sudan, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In an unusual move, China has also announced that it will send observers to the referendum — underscoring China’s importance as a partner of the Khartoum government and its desire to build a strong relationship with the emerging southern one.

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