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Southern Sudanese begin casting ballots on secession question

Men and women walked to election stations in the middle of the night Sunday to create a new nation: Southern Sudan. Some broke out into spontaneous song in the long lines. And a veteran of Sudan's two-decade civil war, a conflict that left 2 million people dead, choked back tears.

"We lost a lot of people," said Lt. Col. William Ngang Ayuen, who was snapping pictures of camouflaged soldiers waiting in long lines to vote. The 48-year-old turned away from his comrades for a moment to maintain composure.

"Today is good for them."

Thousands of people began casting ballots Sunday during a weeklong vote to choose the destiny of this war-ravaged and desperately poor but oil-rich region. Because only 15 percent of southern Sudan's 8.7 million people can read, the ballot choices were simple: a drawing of a single hand marked "separation" and another of clasped hands marked "unity."

Almost everyone -- including Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes in the western Sudan region of Darfur -- agrees that the mainly Christian south will secede from the mainly Muslim north.

Southern Sudan is among the world's poorest regions. The entire France-sized region has only 30 miles of paved roads. The U.N. says a 15-year-old girl here has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school.

Southerners have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south.

This week's referendum is part of the peace deal that ended the 1983-2005 civil war between the north and south. Northerners had no say in the voting process and the western region of Darfur, which belongs to the north, is not affected by the vote.

Independence won't be finalized until July, and many issues have yet to be worked out, including north-south oil rights, water rights to the White Nile, border demarcation and the status of the contested region of Abyei.

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. Results will trickle in after polls close Saturday, but results won't be finalized until February.

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