Times 2

Envoys in last push as south Sudan's big day looms

JUBA, Sudan, Jan 8, (AFP)- Hollywood star George Clooney, Western envoys and elder statesmen gathered in Sudan on Friday as the war-ravaged south was finally poised to have its say on independence after a 50-year wait.

The beat of African drums reverberated around the south's regional capital Juba as hordes of youthful campaigners, who have held monthly rallies to ensure the promised referendum goes ahead, staged an exuberant “final march to freedom” from the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

Envoys of the major powers, which played a key role in brokering the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa's longest-running civil war, were there for one final diplomatic push to ensure no last-minute hitches mar the landmark vote.

“Just two days to go -- we're going to vote and then the country will be split in two,” crowed Archelango, an elderly southerner newly returned from years as a refugee to have his say. Cars festooned in the black, red and green of the southern flag toured the dusty streets and potholed pistes of Juba to ramp up enthusiasm for the week-long polling which begins on Sunday.

Although opposition to independence has been well-nigh invisible, turnout will be important because the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) stipulates a quorum of 60 percent of the 3.8 million registered voters. The commission organising the referendum said its preparations were “absolutely complete.””The ballots arrived at all of the centres all over the south,” spokesman George Maker Benjamin said. An official ban on further campaigning would come into force after Friday's rallies, he added.

In Khartoum, US envoy Scott Gration held a last round of talks with government officials and referendum organisers hot on the heels of US Senator John Kerry, as Washington pulled out the stops to ensure no hitches block implementation of the peace deal in which it was so instrumental.

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