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UN: 2.8M people in Sudan could be displaced if fighting breaks out over January vote

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JUBA, Sudan - The U.N. is planning for the possibility that 2.8 million people will be displaced in Sudan if fighting breaks out over the south's January independence referendum, according to an internal report reviewed by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Just over two weeks remain before voters in Southern Sudan decide whether to remain with the Khartoum-based north or — more likely — to secede and create the world's newest country.

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Tensions are high over the vote. Aircraft from the northern Sudanese military have bombed areas in the south or near disputed north-south borders in recent weeks, and the U.N. report said both the northern and southern militaries have been rearming, and that many southerners possess guns and light weapons.

Both militaries have reinforced their positions along the border in recent months, hindering aid work, the report said. If either the north or the south doesn't accept the results of the Jan. 9 referendum, the result could be a "war-like" situation, it said.

"A deterioration of the North-South relationship, as well as tensions within northern and southern Sudan could lead to large-scale outflow of people to neighbouring countries," said the U.N.'s humanitarian contingency plan, which is stamped "Not for wider distribution" but was obtained by the AP.

Underscoring the precarious security situation, southern military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said Tuesday that 20 troops were killed and 50 wounded in an attack Saturday by forces loyal to a renegade army commander in the remote and militarized state of Jonglei.

Aguer said the attack was a surprise because amnesty discussions between the south and commander George Athor are under way. The south's president offered Athor and other dissident military figures amnesty in September in an effort to promote southern unity ahead of the January vote.

The north and south ended a two-decades-plus civil war with the signing of a 2005 peace accord that also guaranteed the south the right to hold an independence referendum. Some 2 million people died in the war, which left southerners scarred and suspicious of Khartoum's Muslim Arab rulers.

In Sudan's capital Khartoum on Tuesday, the leaders of Egypt and Libya met with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir to discuss the future of Sudan after the vote.

If worst-case violence scenarios play out after January, the U.N. plan anticipates an estimated 2.8 million internally displaced people within Sudan and an additional 3.2 million people who may be affected by a breakdown in trade and social services.

The hardest hit populations would be those living along Sudan's disputed and militarized 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometre) north-south border, as well as an estimated 800,000 southerners living in and around Khartoum who would "flee or (be) forced to move to Southern Sudan as a result of violence and insecurity."

Egypt said Tuesday's Khartoum talks were designed to ensure that the referendum is held in a "climate of freedom, transparency and credibility" and that the four leaders would review outstanding issues between the north and south, such as the demarcation of the border and the future of the oil-rich border area of Abyei.

Both Libya and Egypt view Sudan as their strategic backyard and would want to see the breakup of their southern neighbour be peaceful and avoid any massive flow of refugees into their territory as a result of fighting.

While Libya sees Sudan as a vital piece of its Africa-focused foreign policy, there is much more at stake there for Egypt, the most populous Arab nation. Sudan lies astride the middle reaches of the Nile, the primary source of water for mainly desert Egypt. The White Nile, one of the river's two main tributaries, runs through Southern Sudan.

Egypt fears an independent south may come under the influence of rival Nile basin nations like Ethiopia that have been complaining Egypt uses more than its fair share of the river's water.

In preparation for potential problems, the World Food Program is positioning 76,000 metric tons of emergency food to 100 hubs throughout the south. Emergency shelter supplies, medical kits, and water and sanitation equipment have also been prepositioned.

Another challenge is the influx of southerners returning home from northern Sudan, where an estimated 1.5 million have lived since before the 2005 north-south peace agreement was signed. The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that 55,000 southern Sudanese have returned to the south in the last few weeks.

The influx is straining aid capacity. Lise Grande, who heads the United Nations' humanitarian operations in the south, said officials are worried the pace of returnees "may inundate us."

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