Khartoum: International observers gave south Sudan`s referendum on secession the seal of approval on Monday in their first official judgment on the poll, moving the region a step closer to independence.
Early results from the week-long vote suggest an overwhelming vote to split away from the mostly Muslim north after decades of civil war.
"The European Union election observation mission assess the voting process of the Southern Sudan Referendum credible and well-organised in a mostly peaceful environment," a preliminary statement seen by a news agency said.
Former US president Jimmy Carter`s mission similarly approved the referendum which hopes to end a violent cycle of bitter north-south conflict in Africa`s largest country.
"The (Carter) Centre finds that the referendum process to date is broadly consistent with international standards for democratic elections and represents the genuine expression of the will of the electorate," its statement read.
Organisers have reported turnouts of over 90 percent of voters in many parts of the oil-producing south. In the capital Juba, six centres had more than 2,500 votes for secession compared to a maximum of just 25 votes for unity.
"Based on early reports from vote counting centres, it appears virtually certain that the results will be in favour of separation," the Carter Centre added.
Preliminary results are expected by the end of the month and south Sudan would become an independent nation on July 09, according to the terms of the 2005 north-south peace deal that promised the referendum.
Observers had raised concerns before the vote that there was a lack of informed discussion in the north about secession and in the south about unity.
"We were concerned that there wasn`t a conducive environment for campaigning for unity in the south, similarly for secession in the north," the Carter Centre’s Sudan director Sanne van der Bergh told Reuters.
"We had hoped that both governments would have created a more conducive environment," she said.
Illustrating the strength of public emotion in favour of secession in the south, some voters expressed anger that even one person would vote for unity.
"I`m annoyed -- why are they voting for unity? I thought that we didn`t have such people in the south -- they are not southern Sudanese," student Victor Ajuot, 25, said in Juba.
Senior north Sudanese official Ibrahim Ghandour said last week the voting, which ended on Saturday, had been "broadly fair", allaying fears that disagreements over the outcome would reignite conflict.
Sudan`s north-south civil war has simmered since 1955, claiming an estimated two million lives. The conflict was fuelled by differences over oil, ethnicity and ideology.