|South Sudan moved a step closer to independence after the vote passed the required 60 percent threshold [Reuters]
Organisers of a landmark South Sudan independence vote have confirmed that the turnout threshold needed for it to be valid has been reached, as Jimmy Carter, former US president, said the region looks set for nationhood.
Drivers honked their horns in the regional capital Juba on Thursday as southerners hailed the turnout achievement in just four days of the week-long polls, saying it showed the importance of freedom to them after five decades of conflict with the north.
"We are already above the threshold yesterday [Wednesday] - some 2.3 million plus - and more today," Chan Reec, referendum commission deputy chairman, said.
"At the end of the fourth day of polling, with 86 per cent of referendum centres reporting, 2,360,922 people are confirmed to have voted in southern Sudan. This exceeds the 60 per cent threshold figure of 2,359,553."
Carter, who has been heading an observer mission, said he expected the vote to meet all of the criteria to be valid.
"There is no doubt about the legitimacy of the election as far as the number of voters is concerned," Carter told reporters.
"I think it will meet international standards both on the conduct of the vote and the freedom of voters," he said, adding he expected the same to be true of the count.
"The likelihood is that the referendum result will be for independence although we won't know until probably the first week of February."
Cars draped with the southern flag and banners calling for separation sounded their horns as they criss-crossed Juba's potholed dirt tracks.
There was excitement at the tomb of John Garang, the veteran rebel leader, who shortly before his death signed the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of devastating civil war and paved the way for the independence vote.
"This is very exciting news - that the vote is recognised, that enough have already voted makes me feel warm and happy, and to laugh a lot that our referendum is being a success," Anthony Lamaya, who voted on Sunday, said.
"It is proof of how important the referendum is to us that so many came to vote so quickly," Mary Kwaje said. "We want to get our freedom."
Carter said the challenge now was to address the outstanding issues between the two sides swiftly ahead of the July date for international recognition for the south set by the 2005 accord.
"I believe that will happen quite quickly after the results are known," he said.
Carter said he did not believe the northern or southern leaderships were behind clashes in the flashpoint border district of Abyei, which killed up to 38 people over the past week.
"The reports I have so far are that the national forces of both north and south have been very careful not to get involved in the violent confrontation in Abyei," he said.
"It would be very damaging for [Sudanese President Omar] al-Bashir's government if he were accused of precipitating violence."
Nomadic Misseriya Arab tribesmen, who migrate to Abyei each dry season to find water and pasture for their livestock, have been fighting settled pro-southern Dinka for control of the territory.
The district had been due to hold a plebiscite of its own on whether to go with the south or the north, but that has been indefinitely postponed because of disagreement over who should be eligible to take part.
The feuding ethnic groups broke the ice in UN-facilitated peace talks in the northern town of Kadugli on Thursday.
"This is a step forward. We agreed to work for peace," Kuol Deng Kuol, the paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka, told AFP.
Hamid al-Ansari, a tribal chief of the Misseriya Arabs, said: "This meeting has broken the tensions between the Dinka and the Misseriya. Now we are sitting together and eating together and we are no longer afraid of each other."
Kuol said the Dinka had agreed to allow the Misseriya to water their cattle once they had received compensation for people and livestock killed by the Arab nomads during 2010.
"We agreed to let them go to the river within two weeks, if they pay some compensation."
The heavily armed Misseriya were key allies of the northern army during the civil war, and the southern leadership has accused Khartoum of backing them in efforts to derail the promised plebiscite on Abyei's future.