Voters in one of the world's most impoverished regions go to the polls today, as south Sudan decides whether to secede and form its own African nation.
Salva Kiir, who could be the first president of south Sudan, described the vote as a turning point for a country that had survived a dark history of civil war, famine and refugees.
"Today, there is no return to war," he said on the eve of the week-long referendum. Nearly four million people have registered to vote.
Early celebrations yesterday to mark the launch of polling were spoiled by reports of deaths and arrests in clashes between the southern army and a renegade militia in a remote border state, marring the feeling of intense optimism in the days leading up to the historic vote.
But buoyed by the pledge of Mr Kiir and the Sudanese president, Omar al Bashir, to respect the outcome, south Sudanese say they are ready to put behind a war of more than 21 years between Sudan's mostly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian and animist south that claimed nearly two million lives. The peace deal in 2005 set up today's vote.
Even if south votes to secede, as many expect, the two resulting nations will have to work together long past the agreed-upon six-month transitional period.
The south is where most of Sudan's oil is located, but without the necessary infrastructure there is no way to get the oil out without using a pipeline that runs through northern territory.
How the north and south share those resources will depend on the outcome of talks after the results of the referendum are finalised.
Mr al Bashir, an army man who led the brutal civil war with the rebels for 18 years before finally striking the peace deal, said on Friday that he did not believe the south was ready for independence.
But officials in south Sudan hope separation from the north will bring investment in the oil sector that has been halted by sanctions against Khartoum.
Hopes of doubling oil production in three years depend on European, US and Middle Eastern companies providing a boost of capital and technical expertise, said south Sudan's minister of energy and mining, Garang Diing Akuong.
* The National with agencies