The leader of southern Sudan called on his people to vote for secession in an upcoming referendum if they do not want to end up as second class citizens, as voter registration began Sunday for elections across the country.
Salva Kiir's first-ever call for the mostly Christian, oil-rich south to split off from the Muslim north could increase tension with the Arab-led northern government and further strain the fragile 2005 peace agreement that ended the more than two decade long north-south civil war and left more than two million dead.
The north-south war is separate from Sudan's other ongoing conflict, a rebellion in the arid western region of Darfur.
"When you reach your ballot boxes the choice is yours: you want to vote for unity so that you become a second class in your own country, that is your choice," Kiir told worshippers on Saturday at the cathedral in the southern capital of Juba.
"If you want to vote for independence so that you are a free person in your independent state, that will be your own choice and we will respect the choice of the people," he added, according to a recording of the event obtained by the Associated Press.
The civil war ended with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that set up a national unity government, established an autonomous south and stipulated the holding of a 2011 referendum to determine the future of the south.
The agreement also calls for all Sudanese parties to work for unity prior to the referendum. But the partnership has been rocky, mostly because of mutual distrust between the former rivals.
Last week, Kiir, who is vice president in the transitional government, accused the Khartoum of never making "unity an attractive option" for the southerners and of failing to fully implement the peace agreement.
Mandour al-Mahdi, a member of the ruling party's political bureau, expressed regret over Kiir's statements, calling them not befitting of someone holding the position of vice president in the republic.
"What has been said is contradictory to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which calls for favoring the option of unity," he said, according to the official state news agency.
Southern Sudan's vice president, Riek Machar, said the Kiir's statements were not a change in southern policy but rather a way of saying that the northerners have not made unity attractive, leaving southerners angry.
"It is an expression of how south Sudanese people are getting frustrated," he told AP. "People want to see the peace dividends, the country reconciling and development."Reuse content