NAIROBI, Kenya — Southern Sudanese voted almost unanimously for separation from the North according to official results of a referendum on self-determination released late Monday and accepted by Khartoum and world powers, but reports of days of clashes killing dozens of people in disputed oil-rich areas underscored the shakiness of peace in what will be the world’s newest country.
According to results announced in the capital Khartoum 99 percent of voters opted for secession in the week-long referendum that began on Jan. 9. Turnout was also close to complete with 3.8 million valid ballots cast out of 3.9 million registered voters.
"The referendum was correct, accurate and transparent and we have no objection to the results,” announced Mohamed Ibrahim Khalid, chairman of the referendum commission, to cheers of southern Sudanese watching the news on a row of television sets.
In recent years there was little question which way the vote would go and shortly before the results were read President Omar al-Bashir, widely seen as the biggest obstacle to southern independence, conceded the inevitable: “South Sudan has chosen secession,” he said in a speech at the headquarters of his ruling National Congress Party.
“But we are committed to the links between the North and the South, and we are committed to good relations based on cooperation," he said.
Later, in a televised address Bashir reiterated his acceptance. “Today we received these results and we accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the southern people,” he said.
Bashir’s comments were quickly echoed by the United States and other world powers. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated Sudan on a “peaceful and orderly vote.”
Clinton added: “We urge both northern and southern leaders to continue to work together toward full implementation,” of the 2005 internationally-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement that laid the ground for the independence referendum.
She welcomed Bashir’s acceptance of the result saying the United States was now “initiating the process” of removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror, an incentive designed to persuade Khartoum to allow the referendum to go ahead peacefully and accept its result.
"Removal of the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation will take place if and when Sudan meets all criteria spelled out in U.S. law,” Clinton said. Those criteria include not supporting terrorism for six months and promising not to do so again in the future.
Other world powers were also quick to accept the results. Calling it “a historic moment for Sudan” the the European Union’s top foreign diplomat, Catherine Ashton, said: “The EU fully respects the outcome of the referendum as a true reflection of the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Southern Sudan.”
A high-level United Nations panel convened to oversee the referendum said it “believes that the referendum's outcome reflects the free will of the people of South Sudan and that the process as a whole was free, fair and credible.”
While the majority of the South celebrated and the congratulations poured in from around the world reports of days of deadly clashes in a border area came in. Up to 50 people were reportedly killed when northern and southern factions of a joint military unit began fighting in the town of Malakal, a crossroads town on the banks of the Nile.
Clashes erupted on Thursday in Malakal when the northern contingent of a so-called Joint Integrated Unit (made up of northern Sudan Armed Forces and southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army in accordance with the CPA) refused to redeploy north of the border sparking a series of fire fights that spread to nearby villages, emphasising the tinder box nature of north-south relations in the oil-rich border areas.