JUBA, Sudan — Sudan will split into two new countries later this year, officials announced Sunday, marking the climax of a decade long peace process meant to end 50 years of conflict in Africa's largest country, even as political protests raised questions about the north's stability.
Southerners celebrated their upcoming independence with dancing, but anti-government protesters in the north clashed with police, reflecting a wave of popular anger that's swept across the Arab world in recent weeks.
The wave of student-led demonstrations against Omar al Bashir's regime in Sudan's northern capital, Khartoum, is the latest in a series of protests against authoritarian governments which began with Tunisia and has since spread to Egypt and Yemen.
Southern Sudan voted 99.57 percent for separation in the Jan. 9-15 referendum on independence, poll officials announced on Sunday in Juba, the southern capital. Added to a smaller pool of Southern Sudanese voters living in the northern region and across the globe, the final tally for separation is 98.83 percent, according to the referendum commission's website.
"These results lead to a change of situation, that's the emergence of two states instead of one state," Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, the head of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, announced in Juba.
Upon hearing the final results, the Southern Sudanese attendees jumped up from their chairs, cheering and waving their arms into the air, until the event moderator urged them over the microphone to let the proceedings continue.
"People have been struggling for so long. Everything was death," said Reec Agok, a 27-year old businessman. "Now I'm so happy, the words won't even come out."
The referendum was the core provision of a U.S.-brokered 2005 peace deal that ended the second of two long civil wars fought between Sudan's mostly Muslim Arab-ruled north, and its non-Muslim and ethnic African south. More than 2 million died in the wars, mostly southerners, and more than twice than number were displaced.
With the referendum nearing, tensions had remained high between Sudan's northern government under Bashir and the former rebels in the south. World leaders feared the vote could bring the country back to civil war.
These concerns have subsided as Bashir, under heavy international pressure, vowed to recognize the result and the referendum began on time with few incidents.
"What is left (is) just formalities," said Salva Kiir, leader of southern Sudan, speaking after the announcement of the results in Juba, congratulating his people for choosing independence. "You have already said it and done it."
Northern rule had treated southerners as "subhumans," Kiir said. According to the 2005 deal, the formal division of Sudan will take effect on July 9. Kiir urged southerners to stay patient and refrain from over-celebrations until the date of full independence.
"We are still moving forward," he said. "The struggle continues."
Meanwhile, as southerners celebrated, northern Sudanese police beat back student-led protests against rising food prices and Bashir's regime, which some blame for the country's partition and looming economic difficulties. The youthful crowds, which gathered in pockets of hundreds in multiple locations in Khartoum as well as other university towns outside the capital, aimed to replicate the ongoing popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
A Sudanese Facebook group promoting the event had 15,000 members before Sunday's protests. A website created just for the demonstrations mapped the site of the protests and published on-site reports of police actions.
The crowds in Khartoum eventually dispersed Sunday after police fired tear gas into crowds and surrounded a number of universities to prevent further unrest.
Earlier this month, Bashir's government was forced to enact a series of economic austerity measures aimed at bolstering the slipping economy, which is only expected to worsen following the loss of Southern Sudan, which holds 80 percent of Sudan's oil. Fuel and food subsidies were slashed, raising prices.
Besides the urban unrest expressed by Sunday's protests in Khartoum, Bashir faces rebellions and rising discontent in the north's vast rural regions. The insurgency in the Darfur region continues, and a number of areas that sided with the south during the war will remain in northern territory after the split.
The most crucial test of Sudan's future stability may be whether the northern and southern leaders who fought against each other so long can now cooperate. Sudan's oil, though mostly in the south, will have to continue to be pumped through the pipeline running north to the Red Sea.
"We must stand with him," Kiir said Sunday of Bashir, his former wartime foe.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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