Songs of freedom as war-torn Sudan holds independence ballot

Women broke out in song and men wrapped themselves in flags as voters in Southern Sudan began casting ballots yesterday in a week-long independence referendum likely to create the world's newest nation about five years after the end of a brutal civil war.

The mainly Christian south is widely expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north, splitting Africa's largest country in two.

The president of Sudan, who has been indicted for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur, has promised to let go of the oil-rich south after his government tried for years to derail the vote now taking place under massive international scrutiny.

His unlikely acceptance of the seemingly inevitable loss comes as the two regions face an interwoven economic future: Most of Sudan's oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north.

Yesterday there was only jubilation though among those who had lived through years of fighting.

"This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," said Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir as he cast his vote in front of a cheering crowd of hundreds lined up in front of the polling station. Sudan activist George Clooney was among those watching Kiir vote.

Kiir, wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, appeared visibly emotional as he remembered the two million people killed in the 1983-2005 civil war. He also honoured rebel leader John Garang, who died in a plane crash shortly after the peace deal was signed.

"I am sure that they didn't die in vain," he told the crowd.Many voters lined up in the middle of the night, and some slept at the site of Garang's grave, where Kiir voted.

This week's referendum is part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the two-decade civil war between the north and south. Voters can mark one of two choices, a single hand for independence or two clasped hands for unity. The illustrations are necessary because only 15 per cent of the region's 8.7 million people can read.

Southern Sudan is among the world's poorest regions, and the UN says a 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school.

Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south. The fiercest period of fighting was the two-decade span that began in the early 1980s and ended with the peace agreement.

More than one million people headed north to escape the violence, and about 3,800 war orphans known as the Lost Boys of Sudan resettled in the United States.