Thousands Head South for Sudan Vote

Sudanese men cheer during a demonstration in support of the referendum on southern independence during a rally organised by the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau in Juba, January 7, 2011. The sign reads, "secession". (REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya)

Thousands Head South for Sudan Vote

An average of 2,000 southerners a day are returning home ahead of landmark referendum as campaigning comes to a close.

Thousands of southerners have returned to south Sudan from the north
ahead of the independence referendum that could see the south split from
the north to form a separate state.

International envoys
including Jimmy Carter, the former US president, Thabo Mbeki, the former
South African president, and Kofi Annan, the former United Nations
secretary-general, also arrived in the region on Friday to monitor the

The United Nation's refugee agency said on Friday that an average of
2,000 people were crossing back into the south each day, with the total
figure in recent weeks at more than 120,000.

"The number of southerners who are leaving the North ahead of this
week's landmark Sudan referendum to return to their ancestral homes in
the South has doubled since mid-December and now stands at 120,000," the
office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a
statement on Friday.

Some reports say that hundreds more
southerners have been stranded south of Khartoum, the northern capital,
waiting for transport back to the south.

The UNHCR said that it expected many more people would return in the months following the January 9-15 referendum.

"Many of the returnees who have lived in the north for years say they
have left for fear of the unknown and the opportunity to start afresh
in their native South," the UN refugee agency said.

Turnout crucial

The Carter Center, founded by the former president, is deploying at
least 75 observers to the monitor the referendum, while China, which has
large investments in Sudan's oil sector, is also sending observers, as
is the European Union.

Asked by Al Jazeera what his message
was to people in the north and the south, Carter said: "Just accept the
decision of the southerners in the referendum peacefully, no matter
whether it is to stay part of Sudan or to form a new nation.

"Then after that, devote full time to the complete implementation of
the Comprehensive Peace Agreement provisions dealing with Abyei, dealing
with the borders and and divisions of wealth, in particular oil."

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which brought an end to civil
war between the north and south, stipulates a quorum of 60 per cent of
the 3.8 million registered voters, meaning that while there has been
little apparent opposition to southern independence, voter turnout will
be crucial.

Also in Sudan for the referendum is George Clooney, the Holywood
star. He arrived in Juba, the southern capital on Thursday and was due
to travel to the disputed region of Abyei on Friday.

The oil-rich Abyei region had been due to hold a simultaneous vote on
its future on Sunday, but that has now been indefinitely postponed.

The delay has prompted fears of clashes between the district's
settled pro-southern Ngok Dinka population and Misseriya Arabs from the
north who use its waters for seasonal pasture.

Abyei is the sticking point in what is otherwise being viewed as a successful build up to the landmark vote.

'Preparations complete'

On Friday, the election commission organising the referendum said that preparations were complete.

"Preparations are absolutely complete - the ballots arrived at all of
the centres all over the south," George Mater Benjamin, the commission
spokesman, said.

"We have co-ordination with the United Nations. They are giving us small planes to distribute the ballots."

Earlier, in a rare act of praise for Omar al-Bashir, the Sundanese
president, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, the UN
Security Council said its members "appreciate" his stance on the

Al-Bashir has said he will respect and support the south's wishes if it chooses independence.

David Gressly, the southern head of the United Nations Mission to
Sudan, expressed optimism that calm would be maintained for the

"For the last several weeks - several months probably - we have seen
the lowest level of insecurity in southern Sudan since the Comprehensive
Peace Agreement has been signed," he said.

"It has been a very conducive environment for the registration, and we expect the same to continue for the polling period."

But aid agency Oxfam took issue with the peacekeeping mission's
focus, saying it should have devoted fewer resources to the referendum
and more to the protection of civilians from persistent low-intensity
violence that has claimed nearly 1,000 lives over the past year.

"The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan has so far failed to prioritise the protection of local people," it said.

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