If the vote counting process stays on track, southern Sudan is due to become the world's newest country in July [AFP]

The first preliminary results from Southern Sudan's weeklong independence referendum have been posted.

The results on Sunday come a day after Sudan’s south ended its independence vote, one that many believe will divide the country in half.

An Associated Press review of results at 10 sites in the south's capital of Juba found a 95 per cent turnout in which 96 per cent were in support of secession. The remaining three per cent were for unity and the rest were invalid.

While the AP review had only a small sample of the approximately 3.2 million votes cast, almost all observers believe the south voted for secession in a referendum that needs to pass by a simple majority.

Lonyik Roberts, a poll worker at Juba, said: We continued counting throughout the night. We are waiting now for the referendum commission to collect the ballots."

Free and fair

Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, the chairman of the south's referendum commission, said 83 per cent of those registered in the south and 53 per cent of those registered in the north had cast their votes.

Khalil said he believed the referendum would be judged as "a good result by any international standard," noting that the commission set up the vote in four months.

Catherine Ashton, a senior diplomat with the European Union, hailed "a historic event and a major milestone," and said the bloc's poll observers would give a preliminary assessment early next week.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, praised voters for their "display of wisdom, patience, and peaceful determination that has characterised the voting over the last week".

If the process stays on track, southern Sudan is due to become the world's newest country in July.

The independence referendum was promised to the south in a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of north-south civil war in which two million people were killed.

However, outstanding issues have yet to be negotiated, including border demarcation, oil rights and the status of the contested oil-rich region of Abyei.

Source: Agencies