As vote counting begins, the European Union has welcomed the peaceful end to the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence. The poll is widely expected to result in Africa's largest country being split in two.
Southern Sudan hopes to win peace and indepence
Election officials began the task counting votes on Sunday after polls in Sudan closed putting an end to a week-long vote in a landmark referendum on the South's independence.
A small, non-representative sampling of early returns showed an overwhelming vote for independence.
"This was a historic event and a major milestone in implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)," the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton said on Saturday.
"I would like to express my great satisfaction that the Southern Sudan Referendum was held on time and conducted peacefully," she added.
Congratulations also came from the United Nations with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saying the voters had shown patience and "peaceful determination."
The referendum stems from the 2005 peace agreement that ended years of civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the largely Christian and Animist south of the country.
The two decades of conflict left at least 2 million people dead and some four million displaced.
South Sudanese leader Salva Kiir urged his people on Sunday to "forgive" the north for a devastating 1983-2005 civil war, in his first public declaration since a landmark independence vote ended.
EU pledges continued support
The vote is a milestone towards peace, the EU's Ashton said
The final result of the referendum is not expected before next month but the vote is widely expected to lead to the creation of a separate southern state.
Former US president and poll observer Jimmy Carter, who's shuttled between northern and southern Sudanese leaders, said he believed turnout was about 90 percent and that a majority of voters favored secession.
While many observers hope the referendum will be the peaceful resolution of the north-south rivalry, others fear that splitting the country in two could plunge parts of Sudan once more into a state of war.
But the government in Khartoum in the north of the country has said it will accept the outcome of the vote. During the two decades of civil war, the southern rebels accused Khartoum of keeping the wealth from the south's oil resources while neglecting development and education in the south.
Ashton has promised continued support from Brussels to work for a sustainable peace in the region.
"The EU stands ready to assist the parties further in ways they would consider helpful to achieve lasting peace and stability, in cooperation with our international partners," she said.
EU observers to the vote will give a preliminary assessment of the poll early next week. Official results are not expected before early February.
Author: Andreas Illmer (AFP, dpa, AP)
Editor: Sean Sinico