, JUBA, Jul 9 – Hundreds of supporters of south Sudan independence rallied in Juba on Friday, six months ahead of a crucial referendum that could lead to the partition of Africa\’s largest country.
Shouting and cheering, large crowds shrugged off heavy rain for a three-hour parade through the centre of the southern capital, singing songs in support of independence.
"We want to make sure that the vote is not delayed, that all the processes still remaining are completed," said Daniel Ding, a student.
Many demonstrators were part of a group called "Youth for Separation," and wore T-shirts printed with slogans in support of secession.
South Sudan is still recovering from its 22-year civil war with the north during which about two million people were killed, in a conflict fuelled by religion, ethnicity, ideology and resources like oil.
The referendum was set up under a 2005 peace deal, which promised the south the chance to choose independence or to remain within a united Sudan.
Registration for that vote was due to begin this month, but is already behind the original timetable.
"We need to ensure that the referendum is held on time," said Awot Deng, who helped organise a separate women’s rally and prayer meeting at the southern parliament in support of a peaceful vote.
"Let us conduct a peaceful referendum that will be embraced by all the people of southern Sudan."
Officials insisted the vote would not be delayed.
"The referendum cannot be delayed by one day because the Comprehensive Peace Agreement says it must be held by 9 January 2011," said Agnes Kwaje Lasaba, the southern government\’s minister for social welfare, who was also at the prayer meeting.
Organisers have vowed to hold marches every month ahead of the referendum to show southerners’ concern that the vote takes place as promised.
Key outstanding issues must still be negotiated, including border demarcation between north and south, wealth sharing of oil resources as well as questions of nationality and citizenship, should the south choose independence.