Juba: Thousands of south Sudanese started registering for their long-awaited independence referendum on Monday, their first concrete step toward a vote that could split Africa`s largest country in two.
The launch came after northern and southern leaders agreed they would form a "soft border" allowing the free movement of trade and nomads between their territories in the event of separation, as part of a framework agreement to resolve a list of disputes between the two sides.
The referendum on whether the oil-producing region should declare independence, scheduled for January 09, is the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south conflict -- Africa`s longest civil war that was fought over ethnicity, religion, ideology and oil and that killed 2 million people.
Analysts widely expect southerners embittered by the long war to vote for secession.
Southern President Salva Kiir, surrounded by chanting crowds and drummers in the southern capital Juba, was among the first to sign up for the vote, a report said.
"We will vote on January 09. People must come out en masse. Otherwise people would have been fighting and dying for no cause. The referendum is done only once," Kiir told the crowd.
Officials with megaphones ranged the streets of Juba in the morning calling on people to register. One unofficial vehicle blared out a pro-independence song: "It`s the promised land and the promised land is coming."
"We need to separate from these people (the northerners). They have not done anything good for us," Juba resident Deng Manyual said after registering.
The pro-independence mood came in the face of a campaign led by Sudan`s Khartoum-based President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for southerners to choose to stay united with the north.
Southern leaders have accused the north of trying to delay and disrupt the plebiscite to keep control of the south`s oil reserves, and warned there is a risk of a return to conflict. Bashir has dismissed the accusations and promised to accept the result of the referendum.
Southerners are also able to register in the north and eight countries outside Sudan.
In contrast to Juba, the mood in Khartoum was subdued. The referendum commission acknowledged not enough had been done to publicise registration centres.