South Sudan on final leg of vote for nationhood
South Sudan was wrapping up a week-long independence vote on Saturday confident one of the world's poorest regions is now securely on the path to becoming its newest nation state.
A handful of voters trickled to the polls on the final day of the landmark referendum that is set to turn the page on five decades of conflict between the mainly Christian, African south and the mainly Arab, Muslim north.
But 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 which ended the last, 22-year civil war was passed on Wednesday evening and there were few people left to vote.
That hurdle had been the only real question mark over the poll -- in a 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.
Former US Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Centre foundation has been observing the referendum, said turnout was averaging about 90 percent across the south.
"In the south, there has been average of 90 percent from the stations we have observed, which are a fairly large number of the stations and they seem to be representative of the others," he told reporters in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
"I think they (the Khartoum government) will recognise the results immediately," added Carter, who has shuttled between northern and southern leaders during the past week.
The south's ruling party had taken every opportunity to appeal to the consciences of an African nation still blighted by the devastating 1983-2005 war.
"The final walk to freedom, 2.5 million lives paid," screamed banners and flyposters across the region.
And they did walk for hours or even days, in some cases more than once after being turned away from polling stations that had been overwhelmed by the queues of thousands of eager voters on the first few days.
George Emanuel told AFP it had taken him six days to reach Juba from the northern city of El-Obeid as he cast his vote on Saturday.
UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Georg Charpentier, said a total of 180,000 southerners had returned from the north since the beginning of November, with more than 15,000 arriving during the week-long polling period alone.
He said the UN was expecting between 500,000 and 600,000 to arrive by August, adding he hoped returns would be more orderly in the coming months.
"Obviously the emotions around the referendum have prompted many southerners to come home. Many maybe from a rational point of view may have been premature," he said, speaking at Juba's river port on the White Nile where many of the returnees arrive.
"That emotional aspect might eventually lower a little bit after the referendum results."
The close of polls was to sound the starting pistol for the massive logistical operation of collating the result, which is not expected before next month.
UN helicopter crews were to assist referendum organisers in picking up ballot papers from the remote countryside of a vast, underdeveloped region which has just 40 kilometres (25 miles) of paved road for an area the size of France and Belgium combined.
On the streets of Khartoum, there was a sense of rueful resignation that the nearly nine million people of the south were poised to break away -- and with them some 80 percent of Sudan's oil reserves -- leaving the north's 32 million people to go it alone.
"I feel sad," said Mustafa Mohammed, a young tax officer. "I am not for secession."
In the face of the looming prospect of the loss a big chunk of its oil revenues after the partition of Africa's largest nation, the Khartoum government announced ahead of the independence vote that it was reducing state subsidies on fuel and sugar and tightening government spending.
The austerity package triggered clashes between students and police in the north on Wednesday and Thursday, although not on anything like the scale of the deadly unrest that has rocked Tunisia for the past two months, prompting veteran President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to take refuge in Saudi Arabia.
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