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'Last trumpet' sounds in south Sudan vote


A Christian bishop blew the "last trumpet" on rule by the Muslim north on Saturday as a week-long referendum on independence for south Sudan closed and a slow count got under way.

"Secession. Secession. Secession," the returning officer intoned as he carefully unfolded each ballot paper cast at a polling station in a school in the southern regional capital of Juba before pronouncing the voter's choice.

There was the odd vote for unity with the mainly Arab, Muslim north but they were dwarfed by the huge pile in favour of turning the mainly Christian, African south into the world's newest nation and putting the seal on five decades of conflict.

The count was being conducted by torchlight, creating an almost religious atmosphere in the small classroom. The school has no mains electricity.

Each vote was passed for checking to two other polling station staff and shown to domestic and international observers. There were a dozen at the school in Juba's Hay Malakal neighbourhood.

Some polling stations were expected to continue the count through the night until all their ballots had been recorded and checked.

Others, particularly in rural areas where many were out in the open, locked away the ballotboxes for the night and were due to start counting on Sunday.

The deputy chairman of the referendum commission, Chan Reec, had announced earlier that the only extension to polling would be among emigre voters in flood-hit areas of Australia.

The final result, which will determine whether south Sudan secures recognition as the 193rd UN member state in July, is not expected before next month.

A senior official of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) said the north would accept the outcome of the vote even if it was for partition of Africa's largest nation.

Bishop Paul Yugusuk was among the last to have his say in the referendum, centrepiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war pitting the mainly Christian and African south against the north, at a cost of around two million lives.

"I have blown the last trumpet at the very end of voting," said Yugusuk, sporting a bishop's purple cassock after sounding his orange vuvuzela, draped in the black, red and green of the south Sudanese flag.

"This is the signal not only of the end of the voting but of an end to our slavery, oppression and the beginning of our freedom," said the Anglican bishop who chairs a Religious Referendum Leaders' Initiative.

The organising commission's chairman, Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil, an elder statesman who served as Sudanese foreign minister in the 1960s, hailed the "most peaceful" election he had ever seen in Sudan.

Voters trickled to the polls on the final day of the landmark referendum.

So many people turned out on the first four days that the 60-percent threshold set for the referendum to be valid by the 2005 peace agreement was already passed on Wednesday evening.

That hurdle had been the only real question mark over the poll -- in a Sudanese general election last April the pro-independence former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement took a full 93 percent of the vote.

Few analysts expected the margin of victory to be much different this time round.

Senior NCP official Rabie Abdul Ati said: "The referendum took place in an atmosphere of calm... with a great degree of freedom and fairness.

"It is very clear that the party will accept the result whether it be for unity or secession," he told AFP.

The organising commission chairman declined to predict the outcome but expressed regret that more had not been done to sell the unionist cause.

"If I was a politician, I would have worked much harder to have made unity attractive," Khalil said. "You don't get things by hoping, you get things by working for them," he added, quoting a traditional Arabic saying.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on the "people and institutions of Sudan to exercise patience and restraint until the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission announces the final result."

EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton hailed "a historic event and a major milestone," and said the bloc's observers would give a preliminary assessment early next week.