updated 10/11/2007 3:21:08 PM ET 2007-10-11T19:21:08

The ruling party of autonomous southern Sudan suspended its participation in a national unity government with the north on Thursday, the worst blow yet to a fragile peace deal that ended two decades of civil war in the country.

The Sudan People's Liberation Movement complained that Khartoum was holding up implementation of the 2005 peace agreement, particularly provisions defining the border between north and south — a sensitive issue because the border runs through some of the country's best oil-producing regions.

International officials have been warning for months that the north-south peace deal is in danger of collapsing — a crisis that has been largely overshadowed by efforts to end Sudan's biggest current conflict, the bloodshed in the western region of Darfur.

Observers warn that renewed war between the north and south would throw all of Sudan into turmoil.

"The SPLM has recalled all ministers and all presidential advisers to the government of national unity," the party's secretary-general Pagan Amum told The Associated Press in Juba, which serves as the south's capital.

He said the SPLM's 18 Cabinet ministers and three advisers would stay out of the central government until the north ceases "violations" of the peace deal. These include Lam Akol, Sudan's minister of foreign affairs, and Riek Mashar, the south's highest ranking official in the national government as minister for the council of ministers.

U.N. Security Council asked to help
Amum said the ministers would stay away from the government until northerners prove they are willing to abide by the peace treaty. He urged the U.N. Security Council to call a meeting to examine the peace deal's problems.

"We hold President Bashir and the whole NCP leadership personally responsible for the violations," he said. "These aren't delays, these are flagrant violations."

There was no immediate comment from the central government in Khartoum.

The U.N. and U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended two decades of civil war between the Arab and Muslim-dominated north and the mainly Christian and animist south, a conflict in which some 2 million people died in fighting or related disease or famine.

It created an autonomous region in the south and integrated the SPLM — the former rebel group fighting the north — into the Khartoum government. It also called for sharing of oil wealth. A 10,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission is deployed in the south.

Andrew Natsios, the White House's special envoy to Sudan, said during a visit to Sudan last week that he was "deeply concerned with the health" of the agreement and warned, "the risk of a clash is high."

The Khartoum government led by President Omar al-Bashir has rejected a border drawn recently by an international commission, and both sides have reportedly massed fighters and troops along the contested region. Many worry that the border town of Abyei, close to important oil reserves, is a powder keg.

Southern leaders have also complained that Khartoum's ruling National Congress Party has been slow on implementing promised democratic reforms, demilitarizing the south and revenue-sharing.

Amum said the SPLM members of the central government "will not report to work until the contentious issues are resolved."

"We are working to avoid a return to war, that is the essence of the management of the current crisis," he said.

'Poisonous' relations
During his visit, Natsios said relations between southern and northern members of the central government were "poisonous."

South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, serves as deputy president in the central government but he and many southern officials have largely avoided Khartoum for months, staying mainly in Juba.

The end of the southern civil war was a major diplomatic victory and fueled hopes that the Darfur conflict could be similarly resolved.

But the four-year-old war in Darfur has only worsened between government forces and ethnic African rebels. The government is accused of unleashing the Arab janjaweed militias, which are blamed for atrocities against ethnic African villagers. More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their homes in the conflict.

Sudan is Africa's largest country and has been dominated by a small, elite group of northern Arab tribes since its independence from Britain in 1956.

The government of al-Bashir, who came to power in a military and Islamist coup in 1989, has also quelled another uprising in the east of the country, which remains unstable, and faces unrest in the extreme north and in Kordofan, a sensitive region between the south and Darfur.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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