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Thousands vote in Southern Sudan as violence flares in disputed region
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Jan 10, 2011 - 8:05:28 AM  

Thousands vote in Southern Sudan as violence flares in disputed region

By the CNN Wire Staffc/div>

Mary Luluwa shuffled to the front of the line with her wooden cane. She is almost totally blind and had to be shown by election officials how to place her thumbprint.

Luluwa doesn't know exactly how old she is, but she said she is certain how she will vote.

"For freedom," she said. "I am very happy to vote, it's my first time, I am old and I can't see much, but I voted for my children."

Yet violence continued Monday after days of clashes leading up to the referendum.

At least 23 people have been killed in ongoing clashes around the disputed region of Abyei, an oil-rich area that the British transferred to Sudan in 1905.The 2005 peace agreement called for people in Abyei to vote this week on whether to remain part of the north or return to the south, but that vote has been delayed.

Clashes have happened for four days between members of the Ngok Dinka ethnic group, which tend to have more in common with the south, and the Misseriya, a nomadic Arabic tribe that comes in and out of the Abyei region and whose sympathies would most likely tilt toward the northern government.

The death toll was at least 23. Thirteen were Misseriya, according to hospital officials in nearby Muglad. Ten were reported dead in Abyei, said John Ajang, secretary general of the Abyei government.

"Clashes have now entered their fourth day between the Abyei government forces and armed militias," Ajang said. "We do not believe that these are mere Misseriya tribesman; we believe that these are Sudanese government-supported militias."

Ajang said witnesses described heavy weaponry inconsistent with the automatic weaponry seen carried by Misseriya tribesmen in the past.

"We believe this is an attempt by the Sudanese government to take Abyei while the government of south Sudan forces are busy with the referendum," Ajang said.

An international election observer said the first day of voting appeared to have been well-handled.

Voters "were waiting patiently. They were in a happy, celebratory mood. They went through the process in an orderly way, largely," David Carroll, director of the Democracy Program at the Carter Center, said in a telephone interview from Juba.

The Atlanta-based Carter Center has about 70 observers in Sudan and 30 observers in eight other countries where Southern Sudanese are living and voting, Carroll said.

Representatives of the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development are also observing the referendum.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague praised the vote.

"This represents a historic step toward the completion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement," the 2005 treaty, they said in a joint statement.

Southern Sudanese people who lived in the north for decades have crossed back into their homeland to vote in the referendum. Meanwhile, some voters in the north said they voted for unity, including one woman who said she didn't see a point in splitting up the country.

Prior to the voting, Southern Sudanese diplomat John Duku said a unified Sudanese nation "means only one thing -- it means war."

"Over the years, unity has imposed war on us, the unity has imposed marginalization on us, the unity has imposed slavery on us," he said. "So, what is the meaning of unity? For the people of south Sudan, it means only war."

Thabo Mbeki, a former South African president and chairman of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan, has said the people of Sudan will have to redefine and reconstruct the relations between north and south after the referendum.

The south has repeatedly accused the north of trying to stoke tension by supporting rebels troops to destabilize the south, an allegation the Arab Muslim-led government in Khartoum denies.

Wour Mijak, a spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in Abyei -- the governing party of the southern region -- said police intercepted militias of the Misseriya on Friday and skirmishing ensued. One police officer and four members of the militia were killed, and six of the militia were wounded. Skirmishes continued Saturday, he said.

But Hamadi al-Dudu, a Misseriya tribal leader, said Misseriya herders were with their grazing cattle in the area of Umbalayil when they were approached by the Southern Sudanese forces in cars with heavy weaponry.

"It was an unprovoked attack," al-Dudu said. "Our people fought back."

Even with a secession vote, stumbling blocks could remain -- about 20% of the border area has not been demarcated, and the division of oil revenues between the two sides could be an issue.

CNN's David McKenzie and Ingrid Formanek contributed to this report from Juba, Sudan; CNN's Ben Wedeman from Khartoum, Sudan and Nima Elbagir frmo Balom, Sudan.

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