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South Sudan votes in landmark independence referendum

People in Southern Sudan have begun voting in a week-long referendum on independence, with the situation largely peaceful. The referendum is widely expected to pass and make the region the world's youngest country.

Man carries south Sudan flag

Approval of independence is all but certain

Millions of voters in southern Sudan went to the polls on Sunday to cast ballots in a landmark independence referendum, with organizers hailing its turnout as peaceful and unprecedented in numbers.

"I can't express it. This is the size of turnout we have never witnessed before, even during the election," Chan Reec, deputy head of the South Sudan Referendum Commission told AFP news agency, referring to last April's national and regional elections.

"There is singing, there is dancing, this is a day like no other in the history of the people of south Sudan."

South Sudanese voters line up at a polling station

Polls are open for a week to accomodate high turnout

Approval highly likely

The referendum is expected to pass overwhelmingly, but some of the thousands of voters waiting in line at polling stations faced the prospect of having to take advantage of the seven-day period when polls are open.

"I would like to call on all south Sudanese people to be patient in case anyone does not have time to cast his or her vote today," southern Sudan president Salva Kiir said after casting his ballot in the morning.

The referendum was agreed as part of the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa's longest civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian and animist south.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had campaigned for unity, faced with the prospect of losing a quarter of the nation's territory and a majority of its oil reserves. But he has since changed his position, saying this month that he would join in independence celebrations if the referendum passed.

Hopes for peaceful vote

Omar Hassan al-Bashir

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has accepted the idea of southern independence

US President Barack Obama said a peaceful vote could signal a start toward normalized relations with Khartoum after years of sanctions, but warned that a chaotic vote would trigger more isolation.

Derek Plumbly, chairman of the Assessment and Evaluation Commission that monitors the north-south peace deal, said while the risk of violence is always present, the war-weary populations were likely to take the vote through peacefully.

"There is always lots of tinder about and there are a lot of unresolved issues," Plumbly said. "But neither side really wants to go back to war. I believe they will find their way through."

Author: Andrew Bowen (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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