A referendum will be held in Sudan’s conflict - ridden Darfur region on Monday on whether to unify its five states into one, as long demanded by rebels seeking greater autonomy, amid a recent surge of clashes there. While the 3-day vote is expected to uphold the five-state system — as desired by the Sudanese government — ethnic minority insurgents, who have been staging an armed rebellion against Khartoum since 2003, say the vote cannot be fair due to the ongoing fighting. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has, however, emphasized that the situation in Darfur, western Sudan, is stable enough to conduct the referendum. “It is the people of Darfur who choose whether they want states or one region and we are holding this referendum so that no one else can come and say we want this or that,” Bashir said last week as quoted in the report. The United Nations peacekeeping chief said earlier this week that intensified fighting in Darfur has forced 138,000 people to flee their homes since mid-January, adding that there is no end in sight to the 13-year conflict in Sudan’s largest region. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operation Herve Ladsous further said on Thursday before the UN Security Council that the Sudanese government has blocked the access of the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) and humanitarian organizations to conflict zones. Nearly 2.5 million people in Darfur have already been displaced from the region according to the latest UN figures, which also show that over 300,000 people have died there since 2003. Meanwhile, Washington has imposed trade sanctions against Sudan since 1997, citing the situation in Darfur. By holding the referendum, Khartoum hopes to urge the lifting of the trade embargo, which has hit Sudan’s already-battered economy hard. Darfur was a united region since its incorporation into Sudan in 1916 until 1994, when President Bashir divided it into three states. He added two more in 2012. The country’s ruling National Congress Party insists that the five-state system can better serve the people of Darfur.