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World News

South Sudan poised for historic independence vote

JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Millions of south Sudanese will vote on Sunday in a referendum expected to split Africa’s largest country in two.

While many say the fact both sides reached referendum day without a relapse into war was an achievement in itself, some burning issues have yet to be resolved, such as where the new border will run and how Sudan’s oil revenues will be shared.

The widely anticipated vote for southern independence has been celebrated in the south, where banners have described the ballot as a “Last March to Freedom” after decades of civil war and perceived repression by north Sudan.

“Yes of course I will vote for separation. We need our independence. We need to be free from the Arabs,” said Justin Victor, reverend at All Saints Episcopal Cathedral in the southern capital Juba, as his congregation sang inside.

In the mostly Muslim 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.

“It is a feeling of sadness and anger at the same time ... It is also a feeling of disappointment in the political leadership of the south who have guided the southerners toward secession,” said Ibrahim Ghandour, a senior member of the north’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP).

The vote’s organizing commission told Reuters they had defied gloomy forecasts of delays to deliver all voting materials on time for Sunday’s deadline.

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The referendum date was set out in the terms of the 2005 peace deal that ended the last bloody struggle between the north and the south, where most people follow Christianity and traditional beliefs.

OIL, DEBT ISSUES

The logistical achievements have not been matched by political progress. Southerners will go to the polls without knowing the exact position of their border with the north or how much of Sudan’s debt they will 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 will also have to face up to its own internal ethnic rivalries and resolve a bitter dispute with the north over the ownership of the central Abyei region.

Still, north and south proceeded to the referendum while drawing a line under more than half a century of fighting.

An officer from the Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) checks voter registration kits, manuals and cards of referendum at the main distribution centre in Khartoum January 8, 2011, a day ahead of a referendum. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

“The risk is always there. There is always lots of tinder about and there are a lot of unresolved issues, including Abyei,” said Derek Plumbly, chairman of the Assessment and Evaluation Commission that monitors the north-south peace deal.

“But neither side really wants to go back to war. I believe they will find their way through.”

In the build-up to the vote, Juba and Khartoum already looked liked the capitals of two different countries.

In Juba, trucks blaring out music and slogans roared past buildings covered in pro-separation posters. Schoolchildren sang and marched through the streets while community groups held impromptu dancing displays along the side of dirt tracks.

In Khartoum, traffic was light and there were no banners acknowledging the approach of the historic referendum.

“The environment is calm and secured ... There is a bit of caution because people want the 9th of January to come and go, and after that we will see what will happen. We hope that Sudan remains united,” said Khartoum resident Abadallah Ibrahim Yagoub as he queued up to buy his morning newspaper.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Clarke and Andrew Heavens in Khartoum; writing by Andrew Heavens; editing by Mark Heinrich

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