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South Sudan becomes world's newest nation

The popular referendum-mandated separation from Sudan became official today at a ceremony attended by international dignitaries.

JUBA // Celebrations erupted across Juba as South Sudan proclaimed its independence as the world's newest nation state on Saturday turning the page on five decades of conflict with the north.

At a ceremony attended by a host of international dignitaries, the speaker of parliament, James Wani Igga, read out the declaration of the south's secession from the north following an almost unanimous vote for separation in a January referendum.

"We, the democratically elected representatives of the people, based on the will of the people of South Sudan, and as confirmed by the outcome of the referendum of self-determination, hereby declare South Sudan to be an independent and sovereign nation," Wani Igga told cheering crowds.

South Sudan's national flag was then raised, to wild applause, tears and song.

"We shall never, never surrender," the crowd chanted, as people whistled and wiped tears from their eyes.

"I should cry for the recognition of this flag among the flags of the world," shouted one tearful man.

The declaration of independence affirmed the new state's democratic and multi-ethnic and multi-confessional character, and its commitment to friendly relations with all countries "including the Republic of Sudan," Igga said.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was guest of honour at the ceremony, and watched a parade by thousands of members of the former rebel army that he failed to defeat in 16 years command of the northern forces.

From early morning, revellers gathered at the venue, singing songs and carrying flags, amid tight security for the ceremony, which was attended by scores of African leaders and senior Western officials.

It was the largest international gathering ever seen in the war-damaged former garrison town on the White Nile that lacks even basic infrastructure, and army generals were asked to vacate their seats to make space for foreign dignitaries.

"This is the special day," said Joseph Legge. "We cannot wait to see the flags swap -- north down and south up."

South Sudan's independence came exactly six months after southerners voted almost unanimously to split with their former civil war enemies in the north.

For decades, until a peace agreement was signed in 2005, southern rebels fought successive wars with the north, leaving the region in ruins, millions of people dead and a legacy of mutual mistrust.

The independence ceremony was held at the mausoleum of the late rebel leader John Garang, who died just months after signing the peace accord that ended Africa's longest-running conflict and opened the door to nationhood.

"This is a historic day, a day of justice, a day I am so happy to see. Today we can move on with a new life and forget the suffering and the pain," said Archbishop Daniel Deng Bol, head of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Paulino Lokudu appealed for reconciliation after the long years of civil war.

"We pray for a new mentality of mutual understanding and cooperation between our two new neighbouring nations," he said.

Bashir was guest of honour, even though he is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, and there were Darfuris among those waiting expectantly at Garang's mausoleum.

"We are here to welcome our brothers in the south in independence, and give a message to Bashir, that this is what happens when you oppress a people," said Mohammed Jamous.

Around 200 supporters of Darfur rebel leader Abdelwahid Nur held a banner that read: "The new beginning," and "Together we must stop genocide in Darfur, Nuba Mountains."

The Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state in the north have seen deadly clashes in the run-up to southern independence between northern troops and pro-southern militia.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he would try to avoid an encounter with Bashir at the independence ceremony.

But Khartoum was among the first countries to officially recognise the fledgling nation, which needs all the help it can get to overcome the vast challenges of building a stable and prosperous future.

For this, it must strike a cooperative relationship with Bashir, given the strong ties that continue to bind the two countries, and despite the strain on relations caused by the bloodshed in the Nuba Mountains.

Talks in Addis Ababa aimed at resolving issues still outstanding between north and south, such as the future status of the disputed border district of Abyei, how to manage the country's oil sector and the fate of southerners in the north and northerners in the south, have so far failed to bear fruit.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, another prominent guest at the ceremony, on Friday praised the "political courage" of the Sudanese government in accepting southern independence.

"I know secession is painful, emotionally and financially," Ban said after meeting Foreign Minister Ali Karti in Khartoum before flying to Juba for the celebrations.

"While the people of north and south Sudan will soon live in different countries, their future will be closely linked."

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