KHARTOUM (Reuters) - South Sudan voted overwhelmingly to declare independence in final results of a referendum announced on Monday, opening the door to Africa’s newest state and a fresh period of uncertainty for the fractured region.
Hundreds of south Sudanese danced, screamed and waved flags as the announcement was broadcast on a line of TV sets in a square in the centre of the southern capital Juba.
A total of 98.83 percent of voters from Sudan’s oil-producing south chose to secede from the north in last month’s referendum, the chairman of the vote’s organising commission Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil said.
The formal announcement in Khartoum was disrupted by one northern woman who began wailing in grief and was led from the room. “Sudan is one country. Why should it separate?” she told journalists, saying she had relatives in the south.
The referendum is the climax of a 2005 north-south peace accord that set out to end Africa’s longest civil war and instil democracy in a country that straddles the continent’s Arab-sub Saharan divide.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir earlier said he accepted the result, allaying fears that the split could reignite conflict over the control of the south’s oil reserves.
“Today we received these results and we accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the southern people,” he said in an address on state TV.
Southern officials say the question of a name for the new state is unresolved but it could become just “South Sudan.”
South Sudan’s leader Salva Kiir added to the conciliatory mood by promising he would help Khartoum campaign for the forgiveness of the country’s crippling debts and the easing of international trade sanctions in coming months.
Both sides avoided major outbreaks of violence over the past five years. But they failed to overcome decades of deep mutual distrust to persuade southerners to embrace unity.
“Southern Sudanese are a new people now. We have a new identity. We have respect from everyone at last. Our country has come today,” said Rebecca Maluk, a war widow and mother-of-three in the crowd in Juba.
Many southerners see the vote as a chance to end years of northern repression, which they say stretches back through years of civil war to 19th-century raids by slave traders.
The European Union was among the first to say it accepted the results of the referendum.
“The EU looks forward to further developing a close and long term partnership with Southern Sudan which is set to become a new state ... in July 2011,” the bloc’s representative in Sudan, Carlo de Filippi, said.
President Barack Obama said the United States intends to recognise South Sudan as a sovereign country in July.
“After decades of conflict, the images of millions of southern Sudanese voters deciding their own future was an inspiration to the world and another step forward in Africa’s long journey towards justice and democracy,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department said it is initiating the process to remove Sudan from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, but stressed it would only be dropped if it met all criteria under U.S. law.
Pagan Amum, secretary general of the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) told reporters: “It has shown that the people of South Sudan were ready and capable to determine their own future.”
The West’s hands may be tied by the continuing global uproar over Sudan’s separate Darfur conflict. Bashir is still living under the threat of arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court over charges he orchestrated genocide in Darfur.
Deep uncertainties remain over the economic and political stability of both territories over the next five months of intense negotiations over how to share their oil revenues and other unresolved issues.
Landlocked south Sudan is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues and has struggled to find other sources of income to support its economy, weighed down by the huge costs of its army and civil service wage bills.
The north is mired in its own economic crisis, marked by soaring inflation. A series of small street protests, in part inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and neighbouring Egypt, has increased political pressure on Khartoum, as has the prospect of losing the south, seen as a matter of shame to some northerners.
The challenges were underlined over the weekend when soldiers in the southern town of Malakal mutinied, killing at least 50 people, after refusing to redeploy north with their weapons as part of preparations for the split.
Malakal has seen north-south clashes since the end of the civil war, a conflict that killed 2 million people and destabilised the whole region, flooding it with refugees.
Additional reporting by Andrew Heavens and Khaled Abdelaziz in Khartoum and Jeremy Clarke in Juba; writing by Andrew Heavens; editing by Michael Roddy