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Early returns in South Sudan show big vote for secession

Almost 96 per cent of the ballots cast in South Sudan's referendum look to be in favour of the region's becoming an independent country, according to observers.

JUBA // Exhausted poll workers posted the first preliminary results from Southern Sudan's week-long independence referendum on Sunday, and an Associated Press count of a small sampling of the returns showed a huge vote for secession.

Sudan's south ended its independence vote yesterday, a vote most everyone believes will split Africa's largest country in two at the divide between Sudan's Muslim north and Christian and animist south. Poll workers counted throughout the night to post results.

An AP review of results at 10 sites in the south's capital of Juba found a 95 per cent turnout and a huge vote for secession. Almost 30,000 ballots were recorded at the 10 sites, and almost 96 per cent of the ballots were for secession. Three per cent were for unity and the rest were invalid.

That is only a small sample of the approximately 3.2 million votes cast, but almost all observers believe the south voted for secession. The referendum needs to pass by a simple majority.

Lonyik Roberts, 31, the lead poll worker at one of the Juba stations, revealing that poll workers have had little to eat the past 24 hours, said: "We are very tired and very hungry. We continued counting throughout the night. We are waiting now for the referendum commission to collect the ballots."

The independence referendum was promised to the south in a peace deal in 2005 that ended more than two decades of north-south civil war in which 2 million people were killed.

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

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

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. He said there had been a 91 per cent turnout rate among Sudanese voters in eight other countries. Officials had said there were some 3.9 million registered voters.

Mr 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.

Sudan's ruling party in the north said on Friday that it was ready to accept southern independence. Border demarcation, oil rights and the status of the contested region of Abyei still have to be negotiated.

Gonda Keffa, a poll worker at Juba University's polling site, said his team began counting ballots at 8pm last night and finished at 5.30am. today

"We worked throughout the night. That's why you can see we are just feeling giddy," said Mr Keffa, 24.

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