SUDANESE President Omar al-Bashir had threatened to cancel a referendum on independence for the south should opposition parties boycott April's elections, reports said yesterday.

Opposition parties from the south have been calling for a delay to the polls, the first multiparty elections since 1986, and threatening a boycott due to concerns over security and possible rigging.

"Holding elections in the Sudan is a national obligation that should be fulfilled," Arabic broadcaster al-Jazeera quoted al-Bashir as telling a rally on Monday. "We don't have options in this respect. If they took the right to oppose the elections, we do have the same right to reject the referendum in the south."

The election is the first since the end of a decades-long civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. A 2005 peace deal ended the conflict, but insecurity has continued in the south, where clashes between rival ethnic groups claimed thousands of lives last year.

A timetable for the election and the referendum, due next year, was agreed to in the peace deal.

The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) said it was concerned the elections would not be free and fair - a fear echoed by New York-based lobby group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Conditions in Sudan are not yet conducive for a free, fair and credible election," Georgette Gagnon, HRW's Africa director, said last week. "Unless there is a dramatic improvement in the situation, it's unlikely that the Sudanese people will be able to vote freely for leaders of their choice."

While fighting has died off in the western province of Darfur, there remains a huge refugee population and general insecurity. According to HRW , the problems in Darfur and repression of political opponents are major obstacles to a free and fair vote.

It also criticised the southern Sudanese government of the SPLM for attempting to repress opposition.

The US-based Carter Centre, which runs a long-term monitoring mission in Sudan, recently said a delay would be wise for logistical reasons.

However, al-Bashir - who is running for office again despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur - responded angrily to the suggestions, threatening to kick out election monitors.

"We brought these organi sations from outside to monitor the elections, but if they ask for them to be delayed, we will throw them out," he said. "We wanted them to see the free and fair elections, but if they interfere in our affairs, we will cut their fingers off, put them under our shoes and throw them out." Sapa-DPA