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Southern Sudan steps towards vote on independence
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Oct 27, 2008 - 1:10:00 PM

Southern Sudan steps towards vote on independence

JUBA, Sudan (AFP) Southern Sudan has made the first steps towards preparations for an historic referendum on possible independence, the leader of the semi-autonomous region said on Monday.

Salva Kiir, who is also first vice president of Sudan in a national unity government, spoke about preparations for the 2011 vote, which could see the south of Africa's biggest nation split from the north.

"We have now started to map out the road to a successful referendum in the interests of the people of southern Sudan," Kiir told a packed public debate in the regional parliament in the southern capital Juba.

The top leaders in southern Sudan and international experts attended the session, which kickstarted the debate on how to prepare for the referendum and discussions on the implications of possible independence.

"It is the people of southern Sudan who will determine for the first time in the history of Sudan to either have unity of this country based on their free will or have an independent separate southern Sudan," Kiir said to applause.

North and south Sudan fought a devastating 21-year civil war until they signed a peace agreement in 2005, which united them into a national government in Khartoum and handed semi-autonomy to the south.

When a six-year transition period is due to end in 2011, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement calls for a referendum in the south, on whether to remain part of a united Sudan or choose full independence.

National elections are scheduled in 2009 although preparations have been falling behind.

Many in the south are deeply distrustful of their former northern enemies. Kiir led a minute's silence on Monday to honour southerners who were killed while fighting "for the right to self-determination."

He warned that the road to the referendum would be "thorny and bumpy".

"Although I am always very optimistic, I am slightly worried that some elements in Sudan will try to deny the people of southern Sudan to exercise this fundamental right," Kiir said.

Most of Sudan's proven oil reserves -- the country's primary source of wealth -- are in the south, which lacks its own pipeline to the outside world.

Fighting in Abyei, a troubled border area -- whose estimated half-a-billion dollar oil wealth is claimed by Sudan's Arab north and Christian and animist south -- was seen last May as the biggest threat to the 2005 peace deal.

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