, JUBA, Jan 12 – South Sudan\’s ruling party said on Wednesday that the 60-percent turnout threshold required for a landmark independence vote to be declared valid has been reached after just three days of polling.
The former rebel Sudan People\’s Liberation Movement cited its own estimates for the achievement which must still be officially confirmed by the South Sudan Referendum Commission that organised the week-long vote.
But there were long queues at polling stations again on Wednesday as voters responded to calls from the party for a "100 percent turnout."
The shine was taken off the jubilant mood by deadly tensions over the flashpoint district of Abyei on the border with the north.
"The mark that would make the referendum valid is past," said SPLM deputy secretary general Anne Itto, referring to the threshold set by a 2005 peace agreement between north and south.
"The 60-percent threshold has been achieved but we … are asking for a 100-percent turnout."
Referendum commission spokeswoman Suad Ibrahim said the SPLM\’s claim was plausible. "It\’s quite possible. It could even be higher," she told AFP.
Itto called on those who had not cast their ballots to do so.
"Voting is an honour to those who sacrificed their lives so we can have this choice today," she said, referring to the devastating 1983-2005 civil war with the north in which an estimated two million people died.
Loudspeaker trucks criss-crossed the potholed dirt tracks of the southern regional capital Juba urging voters to respond to the call.
"It is important that you go out to vote. Have your cards with you. You have only three days more; freedom can\’t wait," they intoned to the accompaniment of loud African music.
Itto accused the government in Khartoum of backing Arab militias in Abyei, where clashes over the weekend killed at least 33 people.
"I condemn the attacks on the Abyei villages," she said, charging that northern troops had taken part alongside militiamen of the Popular Defence Forces and nomadic Misseriya Arab tribesmen, who have been fighting settled pro-southern Dinka farmers for control of the territory.
"The idea is to discourage Abyei from wanting self-determination, and I think it is not right at all to subdue people by force," she said.
The district had been due to hold a plebiscite of its own on whether to go with the south or the north, but that has been indefinitely postponed because of disagreement between northern and southern leaders over who should be eligible to take part.
The Misseriya, who migrate to Abyei each dry season to find water and pasture for their livestock, insist they should have the same right to vote as the Dinka, who live in the district all year.
On Wednesday, Dinka and Misseriya leaders gathered in the town of Kadugli, in South Kordofan state, at the start of a two-day meeting to discuss their differences over Abyei.
"We are here already, and we will be meeting again tomorrow," said senior Dinka chief Kuol Deng Kuol.
SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum, who is the south\’s point man for the implementation of the 2005 peace deal with the north, said the ex-rebels stood ready to hold talks with the National Congress Party of President Omar al-Bashir.
"The situation now is calm although there is a lot of tension in the area. There are fears that Misseriya groups or militias may attack again," he told reporters at Juba airport after flying back from a tour of Abyei.
The African Union offered to broker the talks between the SPLM and the NCP to help overcome the crisis.
"We appeal to the parties to resume negotiations. We are ready to assist them to help find a solution," said the head of the AU liaison office in Sudan, Mahmoud Kane.
Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the lead US negotiator with Sudan, described the conflict in Abyei as "worrisome" but said it was not affecting the referendum.
Former UN chief Kofi Annan, who has been observing the vote in the south, called for a swift resolution of the conflict.
"I hope the parties will buckle down and tackle the issue of Abyei. The sooner they resolve it the better," he told reporters at Juba airport as he prepared to fly to Kenya.
"When you leave such issues to fester and to linger, you can be surprised and it can lead to miscalculations by one side or the other," he said, adding that he had been overwhelmed by the mood at the polls in the south.