JUBA, Sudan — More than 60 percent of registered voters already have cast ballots in an independence referendum, crossing the threshold needed for the vote to be valid if it creates the new country of Southern Sudan as expected, a southern official said Wednesday.
The south's secession would split Africa's largest country in two and deprive the north of most of its oil fields, though Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has said he will let the south go peacefully.
Ann Itto, an official with Southern Sudan's ruling Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement, told journalists on Wednesday that nearly 2.3 million voters had cast ballots so far, surpassing the 60 percent of registered votes needed to ensure the outcome's validity.
Some 2 million people died in a two-decade war between north and south Sudan that ended in 2005 with a peace agreement that allowed for the referendum on independence. The weeklong vote has been jubilant, though the future of the desperately poor region remains uncertain.
The entire France-sized region has only 30 miles (50 kilometers) of paved roads. Because only 15 percent of Southern Sudan's 8.7 million people can read, the ballot choices were a drawing of a single hand marked "separation" or another of clasped hands marked "unity."
Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south. Southerners – mainly animists or Christians – were also angered by attempts of the northern dominated government to impose Islamic law.
Independence won't be finalized until July, and many issues are yet to be worked out. They include north-south oil rights, water rights to the White Nile, border demarcation and the status of the contested region of Abyei, a north-south border region where the biggest threat of a return to conflict exists.
Violence in the disputed region of Abyei has killed at least 30 people along Sudan's north-south divide in recent days, officials have said.