KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudan's president has vowed to more deeply entrench strict Islamic Sharia law in the northern half of his country if the predominantly animist and Christian south votes to secede in a Jan. 9 referendum.
President Omar al-Bashir's comments on Sunday appear to reflect his anger at the strong likelihood that the south will vote overwhelmingly in favor of independence from the mainly Arab and Muslim north in the long-awaited referendum. The vote is a key provision agreed on in the 2005 peace accord that officially ended more than two decades of north-south civil war.
Al-Bashir will meet the leaders of Sudan's two most powerful neighbors — Egypt and Libya — in the capital Khartoum Tuesday to discuss the future of his country ahead of the referendum. Al-Bashir is wanted on an international indictment for war crimes in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.
With only three weeks left before the vote, al-Bashir appears to be resigned to the secession of the south and also prepared to do away with key provisions of the 2005 peace accord that recognizes Sudan's ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity.
The secession of the south, he said, would be like "losing a part of the homeland, but it will not be the end of the world."
"If the south breaks away, God forbid, the constitution will be amended to have Sharia (Islamic law) as the main source of legislation, Islam the official religion of the state and Arabic the state's main language," said al-Bashir, who came to office in a 1989 military coup backed by Islamists.
A full-fledged implementation of Sharia law in northern Sudan could create a new point of friction between south and north because hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim southerners live in the north and many of them were expected to stay there even if the south breaks away. Currently, non-Muslims are exempt from harsh, prescribed Sharia punishments.
Sharia law was first introduced in Sudan in 1983 and it fueled a southern insurgency in its early years. Authorities soon relaxed implementation, but began to be strictly apply it again when al-Bashir came to power. It was relaxed again after the 2005 peace accord.
Al-Bashir is expected to meet Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir in Khartoum on Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in Cairo Monday.
Aboul Gheit told reporters the meeting was designed to ensure that the referendum is held in a "climate of freedom, transparency and credibility, reflecting the will of the sons of the south" and that the south and north build strong ties.
Aboul Gheit also said that the summit would review some of the outstanding issues between the two Sudanese sides, such as the demarcation of the border and the future of the oil-rich area of Abyei on the border between north and south Sudan.
Both Libya and Egypt view Sudan as their strategic backyard and would want to see the breakup of their southern neighbor to be peaceful and avoid any massive flow of refugees into their territory as a result of any renewed 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 south Sudan.
Egypt fears an independent south Sudan 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.
"Guaranteeing our water needs and safeguarding our Nile resources are a central component of our vision for the future," Mubarak told his parliament on Sunday.