, JUBA, Jan 10 – Thousands of south Sudanese poured out to vote for a second straight day in a landmark independence referendum on Monday, bringing the region a step closer to becoming the world\’s newest state.
Repeating the jubilant scenes witnessed on Sunday, huge queues formed outside polling stations in regional capital Juba from long before dawn as voters seized their chance to have their say on whether to split Africa\’s largest nation and put the seal on five decades of north-south conflict.
The scale of the turnout on the second of the seven days of polling brings the south a big step closer to the 60 percent threshold set by a 2005 peace deal between north and south for the referendum to be valid.
"I was born in 1955 as the first war started," said Lometa Hassan after he cast his vote in Juba, referring to a mutiny by southern troops over Britain\’s decision to give Sudan independence as a single country the following year.
"We have had just 10 years of peace in my entire life," he added, referring to the brief lull between civil wars from 1972 to 1983.
Like many people, Hassan had come very early to vote on Monday after being deterred by the thousands already waiting long before polls opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) on Sunday.
"I came here at 5:00 am because yesterday I tried, I came at 7:00 am and I found the whole place filled up," he said.
James Khor Chol, 28, took even more drastic action. "I came at 2:00 am. Today I was the first to vote," he said proudly.
Like many in this mainly Christian region, Chol had gone to church on Sunday before going to the polling station where he was overwhelmed by the queues.
Many were wearing their Sunday best again on Monday as they cast their vote on whether to break away from the mainly Arab Muslim north.
After standing solemnly in sex-segregated lines for hours to perform what for many was a patriotic duty, voters took turns to dip their finger in indelible ink and put their ballot in the box. The women ululated after each one.
Southern leaders had urged voters to turn out en masse but the size of the crowds on the first day suprised the referendum organisers.
After initially being effusive about the scenes outside polling stations, Chan Reec, the organising commission\’s number two, later appealed for more consideration to be shown to women with children and the elderly.
Polls had been scheduled to close at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) on Sunday, but many polling stations visited by AFP in Juba stayed open for another two hours or more to deal with the huge backlog of eager voters.
Some 3.75 million people are registered to vote in the south and around 117,000 in north Sudan, the majority in the capital Khartoum. Emigres were also able to vote in eight countries abroad.
Final results are not expected until next month because of the problems involved in collecting ballot boxes in a vast, war-ravaged region which has just 40 kilometres (25 miles) of tarmac road.
The independence referendum is the centrepiece of the 2005 north-south peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war in which some two million people were killed and another four million fled their homes.
South Sudanese president Salva Kiir was among the first to cast his ballot in Juba on Sunday.
"This is the historic moment the people of south Sudan have been waiting for," Kiir said, holding up his hand to reporters to show the indelible ink that demonstrated he had voted.
US envoys Scott Gration and John Kerry as well as Hollywood star George Clooney watched as Kiir cast his ballot.
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, an army man who led the north\’s war against the south for a decade and a half before signing the peace deal six years ago, has said he will respect the vote\’s outcome if it is "free and transparent."
US President Barack Obama, who aides said had voiced a deep personal commitment to ending the north-south conflict in Sudan, hailed the successful first day of voting and pledged continued support from Washington.