KHARTOUM – More people have died in tribal violence in post-war southern Sudan in recent months than in the western Darfur region plagued by ethnic and politically driven fighting, the United Nations said.

Hundreds have died, thousands have been displaced and scores of villages razed in the south, which was ravaged in a civil war with the north that lasted more than two decades. A peace deal signed in 2005 ended that war.

But in 2003, before the southern deal was reached, another conflict erupted in Darfur that the United Nations says has killed up to 300,000 people, though the government puts the number at 10,000.

In recent months, the death rate in southern Sudan from violent conflict has been higher than in Darfur, the U.N. special representative to Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, said Sunday.

Creating a peaceful environment before national elections in 2010, and a referendum on southern independence set for 2011 under the peace deal, should be a priority for Sudanese authorities and the world, he said.

A secure environment is extremely important for the conduct of elections and the referendum, Qazi said.

Many of the south's key oil regions, among them Jonglei and Upper Nile, have been paralyzed in recent months by bloody tribal clashes linked to long-standing rows over cattle.

Analysts fear the renewed fighting could spread among the territory's highly armed population, which is growing increasingly angry at the slow spread of development.

A U.N. official said in April the Darfur fighting had subsided into a low-intensity conflict in which around 130 to 150 people were dying every month. The United States and its allies disagreed with that description.

Some 2 million people died in the north-south civil war fought over ideological, cultural and religious differences and inflamed by the discovery of oil, mostly in the south.

Khartoum backed several southern militias during the war and southerners say many inter-tribal wounds have yet to heal.

Both southern officials and aid workers say the new fighting is draining resources and hurting the fragile peace deal.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, who has blamed the spike in fighting on troublemakers intent on showing the south cannot rule itself, says he expects conflicts to worsen before the vote.