Women broke out in song and men wrapped themselves in flags as voters in Southern Sudan began casting ballots Sunday in a weeklong independence referendum likely to split Africa's largest nation in two about five years after the end of a brutal civil war.
The oil-rich, mainly Christian south is widely expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north. The north has promised to let the south go peacefully if it votes to become the world's newest nation.
"This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," said Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir as he cast his vote in front of a cheering crowd of hundreds lined up in front of the polling station. Sudan activist George Clooney and U.S. Sen. John Kerry were on hand to watch Kiir vote.
Kiir, wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, appeared visibly emotional as he remembered the 2 million people killed in 1983-2005 civil war. He also honored rebel leader John Garang, who died in a plane crash shortly after the peace deal was signed.
"I am sure that they didn't die in vain," he told the crowd. Women broke out in singing and chants and one man waved a sign saying: "A road toward sovereignty. A new nation to be born on the African continent!!!"
Many voters lined up in the middle of the night, and some slept at the site of Garang's grave, where Kiir voted. Among the voters was Mawien Mabut, a 36-year-old soldier who was grinning widely as he lined up to cast his ballot.
"I have seen the inside of war so we have to stop the war now. We are very happy the Arabs are going away," he said.
Standing near him was Rachel Akech, 30. The tall, pregnant woman has traditional scars on her face and her lower teeth removed, a tradition in the Dinka tribe.
"I couldn't even sleep I've been thinking about this day for so long," she said. "I am ready to vote."
This week's referendum is part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the two-decade civil war between the north and south. Voters can mark one of two choices — a single hand for independence or two clasped hands for unity. The illustrations are necessary because only 15 percent of the region's 8.7 million people can read.
Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south. Southern Sudan is among the world's poorest regions, and the U.N. says a 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school.
Sudan will lose a third of its land, nearly a quarter of its population and much of its main money-maker — oil. The north and south still need to negotiate the distribution of oil revenues, rights to the White Nile, official borders and citizenship rights. Full independence wouldn't take place before July 9, when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, expires and a new agreement must take its place.
In recent weeks the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has sought to play down fears of potential violence, saying the north will accept a vote for secession. But clashes could still flare along border hotspots and in the disputed border region of Abyei.
That region had also been scheduled to hold a freedom referendum on Sunday but its status is disputed by the two sides. It is likely to be subject to continued negotiations between the north and south, brokered alternately by the African Union and the United States.
Clashes in the south's Unity state killed at least six on Saturday, southern officials said, and there are still a number of militias in the region. Clashes were also reported in Abyei, possibly between a northern Arab tribe and black southerners. The death toll was in dispute.
Barrie Walkley, the top U.S. official in Southern Sudan, said Sunday he doesn't think the clashes are a serious threat to the referendum process.
The U.S. has said it may remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if the referendum come off peacefully.
About 117,000 southerners who live in the north also registered to vote, but the scene at one polling station in Sudan's capital of Khartoum was far removed from the joyous scenes in the south. At a high school polling station five staffers and a half dozen observers sat, but no voters appeared. Many southerners fear retribution from northerners if they vote.
"No one will come for days," said Othman Mohammed, who is in charge of the station. "They're simple people. They need someone to bring them."
About 3.9 million people registered to vote. A simple majority must vote for separation for the referendum to pass, but 60 percent of registered voters must cast ballots for the vote to be valid. After the polls close next Saturday, local polling stations will begin tallying and posting results as more than 4,000 local and international observers watch. Final results won't be certified until February.
Turnout appeared robust early in the seven-day process in the southern capital of Juba, where voters were excited to chart a new course.
"Today we're going to determine our future. We will soon be free from Arab rule," said Ajigak Akoi, 27.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Khartoum, Sudan contributed to this report.