Millions vote in South Sudan independence poll

Millions of jubilant south Sudanese started voting on Sunday in an independence referendum expected to see their war-ravaged region emerge as a new nation.

People queued for hours in the burning sun outside polling stations in the southern capital Juba, where banners described the week-long ballot as a "Last March to Freedom" after decades of civil war and perceived repression by north Sudan.

"This is the moment the people of southern Sudan have been waiting for," Southern president Salva Kiir said after casting his ballot, urging people to be patient as they waited to vote.

"I am voting for separation," said Nhial Wier, a veteran of the north-south civil war that led up to the vote. "This day marks the end of my struggles. In the army I was fighting for freedom. I was fighting for separation."

Hours after voting started, the celebratory atmosphere was marred by reports of fresh fighting between Arab nomads and tribespeople associated with the south in the contested Abyei region.

The referendum was promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa's longest civil war, fuelled by oil and ethnicity, between the mostly Muslim north and the south, where most people follow Christianity and traditional beliefs.

In the north, the prospect of losing a quarter of the country's land mass -- and the source of most of its oil -- has been greeted with resignation and some resentment.

Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who campaigned for unity in the run-up to the vote, has been making increasingly conciliatory comments and this month promised to join independence celebrations, if that was the outcome.

President Barack Obama said on Saturday a peaceful, orderly referendum could help put Sudan back on a path toward normal relations with the United States after years of sanctions.

In Juba, actor George Clooney and U.S. Senator John Kerry mingled with dancing and singing crowds. Voters waiting outside one polling station burst into a rendition of the hymn "This is the day that the Lord has made".

"It is something to see people actually voting for their freedom. That's not something you see often in your life," Clooney told Reuters.

 
SADNESS IN NORTH

In the north, many people appeared to be resigned to the loss of South Sudan.

"We feel an incredible sadness that a ... very loved part of Sudan will separate from us," said northern opposition Umma Party official Sara Nuqdullah.

"We must now work to reassure the northerners in the south and southerners in the north and the tribes in the border zone that they will not be harmed," she said, breaking down in tears.

The vote's organising commission told Reuters it had defied gloomy forecasts of delays to deliver all voting materials on time for Sunday's deadline.

The logistical achievements have not been matched by political progress. Southerners went to the polls without knowing the exact position of their border with the north or how much of Sudan's debt they would have to shoulder after a split.

The two sides have been locked in negotiations for months over how they might share out oil revenues -- the lifeblood of both their economies -- and settle other issues after secession. There is no public sign of progress.

The south also will have to face up to its own internal ethnic rivalries and a bitter dispute with the north remains over the ownership of the central Abyei region, where there were reports of clashes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Norway, Britain and the United States, who formed a troika to support the 2005 peace deal, released a statement welcoming the start of voting as a historic step but added: "The situation in Abyei remains of deep concern".

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