South Sudan appears set to become the world's newest independent state after preliminary results from a referendum this month showed that some 99 percent of voters opted for a split from the north.
Results published by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission today showed that with more than 83 percent of Southern Sudanese ballots tallied, and all ballots tallied from southerners living in the north and abroad, nearly all voters favored to split the war-torn state, which is Africa's largest.
Tallying is due to be completed by the end of January and final results announced in mid-February, although the figures released today indicated that the vote easily met the 60 percent participation threshold for the result to be considered valid.
The weeklong independence referendum, which started on January 9, was the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between Sudan's Arabic-speaking, predominantly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south.
More than 2 million southerners died and millions more were displaced in the 22-year north-south war, the continent's longest. It was fuelled by religious and ethnic divisions, as well as conflicts over oil, which is abundant in the south.
The civil war came in the wake of a 23-year conflict that followed independence for Sudan from joint British and Egyptian rule.
Voting For 'Freedom'
Many voters in Juba, the southern capital, said as the voting period opened that they would see independence as liberation.
One voter, Emmanuel Keri, said he had been waiting since the small hours of the morning on the referendum's opening day to cast his ballot against being "a slave."
"I did not sleep in the night. I came at 3 o'clock, and I found there were ones who had come here at 12 o'clock," Keri said.
"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."
Due to high illiteracy rates in the south, voters indicated their votes using hand signals -- a single hand for independence or two clasped hands for unity.
Officials in Juba have so far been measured in their response to the early results and warned voters not to celebrate before the results are finalized.
They also warned against antagonizing the north, although fears of a renewed conflict were calmed ahead of the referendum when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his northern party said they would accept the result of the vote. Bashir, however, has argued that an independent south would be unstable.
If the preliminary results are confirmed, South Sudan is expected to formally declare its independence in early July.
However, a number of thorny issues will still need to be resolved between north and south, including final demarcation of the border, which cuts through the country's oil fields and leaves most of the precious commodity in the south.
Determining ownership of the contested border region of Abyei may be especially problematic.
Fighting in the region between northern and southern tribes claimed over 70 lives as the referendum got under way. A separate vote on whether the region goes with north or south has been delayed.
South Sudan will also continue to face a daunting set of internal challenges, including the threat of clashes between rival communities and dramatically low development indicators.
The would-be country, which is about the size of France, has only a few dozen kilometers of paved road.
written by Richard Solash from agency reports