JUBA, Sudan — More than 7 million ballot papers arrived in southern Sudan's capital, Juba, Wednesday, marking one of the final steps of preparation for a highly contentious referendum next month that will allow Sudan's southern region to secede and form a new country.
"The ballots have come on time, as it was planned," said Justice Chan Reec Madut, head of the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau in Juba. "Now with the arrival of the ballot papers, everything is in place for the vote to take place as scheduled."
The ballot papers were flown to Africa aboard a cargo plane from England, where the ballots were printed. The 20 tons of cargo was divided into individual bundles marked with the names of their state destinations.
Southern Sudan gained the right to the popular plebiscite under a U.S.-backed 2005 ceasefire pact, which granted the mostly non-Muslim ethnic south regional self-rule leading up to the Jan. 9 vote on independence. The peace deal ended the second of two long civil wars that southern Sudanese fought against Sudan's Arab-dominated government in the north.
Two million people, mostly southerners, are thought to have died in the past half century of on-and-off fighting, leaving southern Sudan ravaged and undeveloped as it heads towards possible independence. The region has almost no paved roads, making the poll heavily reliant on logistical support from the international community.
Starting Thursday, the ballots will be flown to the state capitals with the help of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan. The U.N. will then assist state poll leaders in getting the ballots to the counties, and in some remote rural areas will ferry the ballot supplies by helicopter to the actual polling site.
Some of the ballots will proceed to Sudan's northern-based capital, Khartoum, where southerners displaced during the war also are able to participate in the referendum.
The ballot distribution remains the final major step in a time-constrained process which just weeks ago many doubted would be completed by the January 9th date.
"You see before you now an optimist. Two months ago I was a pessimist. I did not think this was going to happen," said U.S. Consul-General in Juba, former Ambassador Barrie Walkley, on Dec. 9, following the successful close of voter registration.
"We feel now that there is nothing that can stop the referendum from going ahead," Barnaba Marial Benjamin, southern Sudan Minister of Information and government spokesman, said today in response to the ballots' arrival.
On Tuesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi held talks in Khartoum with Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and southern Sudan's leader, Salva Kiir, about the referendum. The two Arab leaders from neighboring countries urged Bashir to respect the result of the referendum.
At times, both Libya and Egypt have expressed concern about the looming split of Sudan and have made clear their preference for Sudan to remain united.
"I think there were some doubts, that some leaders, like Gaddafi, might collude to stop the referendum," Benjamin said. "This reduces some obstacles."
(Boswell is a special correspondent. His reporting for McClatchy from Sudan is partially funded by a grant from the Humanity United foundation, a human rights group based in California).
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