Women broke out in song and men wrapped themselves in flags as voters in Southern Sudan began casting ballots on Sunday in a weeklong independence referendum likely to create the world's newest nation about five years after the end of a brutal civil war.
The mainly Christian south is widely expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north, splitting Africa's largest country in two. The president of Sudan, who has been indicted for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur, has promised to let go of the oil-rich south after his government tried for years to derail the vote now taking place under massive international scrutiny.
His unlikely acceptance of the seemingly inevitable loss comes as the two regions face an interwoven economic future: Most of Sudan's oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north. On Sunday, there was only jubilation though among those who had lived through years of fighting.
"This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," said Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir. Sudan activist George Clooney was among those watching Kiir vote.