JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - South Sudan almost unanimously voted to declare independence from the north in a referendum, officials said on Sunday, sparking mass celebrations in the southern capital Juba.
Thousands cheered, danced and ululated after officials announced the first official preliminary results which overall showed a 98.83 percent majority for separation, according to the vote's website.
"This is what we voted for, so that people can be free in their own country ... I say congratulations a million times," south Sudan President Salva Kiir told the crowd.
The vote was promised in a 2005 peace deal which ended decades of north-south conflict, Africa's longest civil war, which cost an estimated 2 million lives.
Kiir, the head of the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), praised his former foe, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for agreeing to the 2005 accord.
"Omar al-Bashir took the bold decision to bring peace. Bashir is a champion and we must stand with him," said Kiir, speaking in a mixture of English and the local Arabic dialect.
"The project has not finished ... We cannot declare independence today," he added.
According to the terms of the accord, south Sudan will be able to declare independence on July 9, pending any legal challenges to the results.
Northern and southern leaders still have to agree on their shared border, how they will split oil revenues after secession and the ownership of the disputed Abyei region.
"I am so happy. Imagine having schools, no fear, no war. Imagine feeling like any other people in their own country," student Santino Anei, 19, told Reuters.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the peaceful vote but told an African Union summit in Addis Ababa he was still concerned about the unresolved issues.
Washington's Sudan envoy Scott Gration told Reuters at the summit the "tough part" of the peace deal was still to come.
"These issues, whether it be borders or citizenship or oil revenues, cannot be solved unless there is an effort (by north and south) to work together in a partnership," he said.
Secession campaigners described the vote as a chance to end years of perceived northern exploitation. Bashir, who campaigned for unity, later announced he would accept a separation vote.
Chan Reek Madut, the deputy head of the referendum commission, told the crowd 99.57 percent of voters in the 10 states of south Sudan voted for independence.
Commission spokesman George Makuer said the 98.83 percent figure published on the website included votes from southerners in north Sudan and eight other countries.
Makuer said the final figure was still subject to a final tally and last minute legal challenges. "But it will not change, maybe by a few decimal points."
Overall, the website showed almost 3.8 million votes for separation and 44,888 votes for continued unity. Final results are due out in early February.