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Sudan's opposition party to boycott vote

Sudan's opposition Umma party has announced a boycott of Sunday's country's first multiparty elections since 1986, dealing a fresh blow to the credibility of the poll.

Sudan's opposition Umma party has announced a boycott of Sunday's country's first multiparty elections since 1986, dealing a fresh blow to the credibility of the poll. The standing of the three-day elections had already been weakened by the decision late yesterday of another opposition party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, to widen its boycott of the vote. And yesterday's decision by the Umma party came hours after European Union election monitors announced they were pulling out of the war-torn western region of Darfur, citing security concerns.

Sarah Nugdalla, head of Umma's political bureau, broke the news of the party's pull-out to journalists after a party meeting in Omdurman, across the River Nile from Khartoum. "We have decided to boycott the electoral process at all levels," she said. Umma was among a group of opposition parties that had given the Sudanese government four days from April 2 to implement key reforms in return for a pledge to take part in that elections that would be pushed back to May.

"The political bureau discussed the issue over the past two days ... In the end, we came to the conclusion that our conditions for postponing the elections had not been accepted," said Ms Nugdalla. Umma won the previous legislative elections in 1986, only to be removed from power later by current president Omar al Beshir. Earlier yesterday, the EU head of mission Veronique de Keyser said that she and a six-strong team of observers were quitting Darfur.

"It's always sad to leave this region which is such a poor region but I really knew when I came that to observe elections here, it's impossible in a credible way," she told reporters on the plane. "There are many safety limitations." Between Sunday and Tuesday, Sudan will hold its first multiparty general election since 1986 including presidential, legislative and local polls. The vote is a prelude to a referendum on southern independence scheduled for January 2011.

Already Tuesday, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement had said it was extending its boycott to include the northern states in Sudan including Darfur. But it said it would still field candidates in the sensitive border states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where the party enjoys support. Pagan Amum, the SPLM secretary general, lashed out at Beshir's National Congress Party (NCP), accusing it of intimidation.

"The NCP continues to issue threats to observers and you can imagine if they are threatening observers to cut their limbs and noses, what will happen to Sudanese people," he said, in reference to statements Beshir had made. But Graham Elson, field officer with the Carter Centre, set up by former US president Jimmy Carter, denied a claim by Mr Amum that Sudanese authorities had expelled their observers in nine northern states.

The Sudanese leader had warned that if observers "intervene in our affairs, then we will cut off their fingers and crush them under our shoes." But on yesterday, Mr Beshir told an election rally: "In two days, president Carter will arrive and I will receive him and will give him and his centre permission to go to any area of Sudan and to monitor any area in Sudan. A report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group accused the NCP of "long-term plans to rig the elections," including by using manipulated results of a 2008 census to draw up electoral districts in its favour.

In the run-up to the elections, opposition groups had wavered over their intention to participate and on what level. The Democratic Unionist party, one of Sudan's two main opposition groups, said on Tuesday it would present Hatim al Sir as its presidential candidate, going back on an initial decision to boycott. The Umma and the DUP came first and second respectively in the 1986 elections three years before Beshir came to power in a military coup.

In a slight shift in position, the United States said on Monday it would accept a short delay in the landmark elections if it helped address concerns. Earlier, it said it was confident the vote would start on time. Sudan's national election commission insisted Tuesday the vote would go ahead as planned on April 11-13. North and south Sudan were engaged in a bitter decades-long civil war that left around two million dead and some four million displaced.

The two parties signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which provided for both the elections and the referendum. * AFP

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