Southern Sudan Votes 98.83% to Secede

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Southern Sudan was well on track to become the world's newest state Monday after final results of its historic independence referendum showed that 98.83 percent of its people had voted for secession.

The results -- displayed at an announcement ceremony in Khartoum -- revealed that, out of 3,837,406 valid ballots cast, only 44,888 votes, or 1.17 percent, favored the status quo of unity with the north.

"The referendum was correct, accurate and transparent and we have no objection to the results," said Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission's chairman.

The definitive outcome of the January 9-15 referendum emerged soon after Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir said Khartoum accepted the south's widely anticipated landslide vote for sovereignty.

"We respect the people of south Sudan's choice and we accept the result of the referendum according to what the commission announces," the Sudanese leadership said in a statement broadcast on state television.

"South Sudan has chosen secession. But we are committed to the links between the north and the south, and we are committed to good relations based on cooperation," Bashir himself said earlier in Khartoum.

Monday's final results ceremony was something of a formality after preliminary results a week earlier showed the same overwhelming majority of south Sudanese choosing to split with the north.

But that did nothing to dampen the excitement in the southern capital Juba, where wild celebrations erupted as the announcement was projected onto a screen via a live satellite link at former rebel leader John Garang's mausoleum.

The crowd of more than one thousand, who had gathered at the site despite the stifling heat, cheered loudly, with women ululating and people embracing.

"We are on the way to the promised land. This result is our ticket, and now the final journey to our independence begins," said Robert Majur, one of those celebrating.

Western applause for the outcome was swift and positive.

"It marks a new day in the region," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged north and south to work quickly on post-referendum arrangements and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton promised to seek a long-term partnership with the new state.

Through his spokesman, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked the international community "to assist all Sudanese towards greater stability and development" and offered the United Nations' help to both sides.

The referendum defied expectations by taking place on time and largely without incident, despite the major logistical challenges facing the organizers and fears that the Khartoum government might try to block a process certain to split Africa's largest nation in two.

The vote was the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year conflict between the largely African Christian south and the mainly Arab Muslim north that killed around two million people.

Speaking to the cabinet after the presidential declaration, Kiir praised Bashir and promised cooperation with the north after the south becomes independent in July.

"The (freedom) of the south is not the end of the road, because we cannot be enemies. We must build strong relations ... (as) there are many things that connect the north and the south," Kiir said.

He pledged to create a soft border that allows the free movement of people and goods, to cooperate on security, and to help in lifting sanctions, having Sudan's foreign debt forgiven and reaching a peace deal on Darfur.

In Khartoum, members of the Forum for Just Peace, a northern political party that advocates secession, were preparing to celebrate the result by sacrificing two cows, which lay bound at the side of the road.

"From today we are saying goodbye to the unity of blood and tears ... Southerners who want to stay in the north will have to stay as refugees," said Abdelwahab Saeed, 50.

Bashir on Monday renewed his commitment to protect southerners remaining in north Sudan and pledged to work to resolve all outstanding north-south issues by July.

But he warned that any resolution to the future of the flashpoint border region of Abyei must accommodate the rights of the Misseriya, Arab nomad cattle-herders who migrate there each year.

"We will not be a part of any solution that does not reserve the rights of the Misseriya. Voting in the Abyei referendum is the right of all citizens, and there are no second-class citizens because they are nomads," he said.

The future status of Abyei, where more than 37 people died in clashes last month, is the most sensitive issue to be resolved ahead of southern independence, with oil-revenue sharing, border demarcation and citizenship also on the agenda.

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