CAIRO -- After decades of war, ruin and dashed aspirations, Southern Sudan moved a step closer to independence Monday as thousands registered to vote in a referendum that early next year could split Africa's largest country in two.
The voter registration drive -- marred by delays and political wrangling -- began at about 2,700 centers around Sudan. The bulk of the turnout was in the semi-autonomous south, dominated by animists and Christians, which on Jan. 9 is expected to secede from the mostly Muslim government in the north controlled by President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir.
"A referendum happens only once," independence leader Salva Kiir told a crowd at a registration station in the southern capital of Juba. "People must come out en masse; otherwise it would mean people fought and died for nothing."
Sudan's fate is one of the most troubling questions facing Africa and the Obama administration, which fears the referendum could ignite renewed bloodshed along the oil-rich border between north and south. Two million people died in a 21-year-old civil war that ended in 2005 with a peace treaty that promised the south a vote for independence next year.
Al-Bashir has said he will allow the plebiscite to go ahead. But some analysts doubt the president will relinquish a south that generates nearly 500,000 barrels of oil per day or about 80 percent of the country's output. Officials from both sides have blamed one another for attempting to provoke hostilities along the border before the vote.
The Obama administration, blamed by critics for moving too slowly on the crisis, has offered al-Bashir a number of incentives, including accelerating Sudan's removal from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, if he does not spoil the referendum. The Southern Sudanese population is estimated as high as 9.7 million out of a nationwide total of about 41 million.
Talks mediated by the African Union between northern and southern officials suggested a sliver of progress. The parties agreed to keep a "soft border" between them to allow business and cattle grazing in the sensitive Abyei tribal region. But the future of Abyei, which at the same time was to decide in a separate poll whether to join the north or the south, is stalled by disputes over eligible voters.
United Nations peacekeepers are stationed along the border. The wider fear is that a conflict between the two camps could further agitate neighboring Darfur. About 300,000 people have been killed there in sectarian violence in recent years, resulting in accusations by the International Criminal Court that al-Bashir has committed crimes against humanity.
Registration for the independence referendum is expected to last just over two weeks. The Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter, and other organizations have sent monitors across Sudan.
Sanne van den Bergh, a Carter Center field office director, said in a statement:
"The success of the registration process is essential to ensuring broad participation in the referendum, which will determine whether Sudan remains unified or if Southern Sudan becomes a separate nation."
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