Voters in southern Sudan began casting ballots on January 9 in a weeklong independence referendum widely expected to result in a new breakaway state splitting off from Africa's largest nation.
The plebiscite, a spinoff from a 2005 peace agreement that ended a long and bloody civil war, was greeted with jubilation by many southern Sudanese as they arrived at polling centers.
First to cast his vote was the south Sudanese leader Salva Kir.
"This is a historic moment the people of southern Sudan have been waiting for," Kir said. "And I would like to call upon all the southern Sudanese people to be patient in case one does not get time to cast his or her vote today. You have more days that you can cast your vote."
Overwhelmingly Christian southern Sudan, one of the world's poorest regions, is seeking independence from the Arabic-speaking, mainly Muslim north, with many southerners alleging they have faced discrimination and underinvestment.
The issue will be decided by a simply majority, with a 60 percent turnout needed to make the vote valid. The result is expected to be announced in February, with South Sudan scheduled to be inaugurated as a new nation on July 9 if the 4-million-strong electorate votes in favor.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is calling for a "no" vote, arguing that an independent southern state would be unstable.
"The south suffers from many problems. It's been at war since 1959," he told the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera. "The south does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority."
But voters in the southern capital, Juba, said they would see independence as a liberation. One voter, Emmanuel Keri, said he had been waiting since the small hours of the morning to cast his ballot against being "a slave."
"I did not sleep in the night," he said. "I came at 3 o'clock and I found there were ones had come here at 12 o'clock. Yes, I have come here to vote, to vote to get the separation. I am like a slave, but I will never come back to being a slave again when I vote today."
'Seen Enough War'
In view of the south's high illiteracy rates, voters are casting their votes by marking two illustrations -- a single hand for independence or two clasped hands for unity.
The run-up was marred by eve-of-poll clashes in the south's Unity State. Analysts also warn that there is potential for violence in border hotspots and in the disputed border region of Abyei.
But former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in the south as an election observer, voiced optimism that the outcome would be accepted peacefully after receiving assurances from President Bashir that there would be open borders between north and south.
"The chances of conflict after the vote has been greatly lessened," he said. "So now there is a general acceptance in the north and south that if vote for independence shall be cast -- we do not know yet -- then it will be accepted peacefully."
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, present in Juba along with Carter, also said it was possible for the north and south to separate without bloodshed.
"Most of the people we have come in contact with would want to avoid conflict and war," Annan said. "They have seen enough war, and they are tired. And we should have positive expectations and encourage them. War and conflict is not the only option. There is enough in history to tell us that enmity between peoples need not last forever. Bitter enemies have made peace, and today in many parts of the world live peacefully together. And it can and should happen also in Sudan."
compiled from agency reports