Southern Sudanese went to the polls on Sunday in a historic referendum that is widely expected to see them vote to split from the north, dpa reported.
The week-long vote is the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and Animist south - a conflict which claimed the lives of more than 2 million southerners and displaced 4 million more.
Salva Kiir, president of Southern Sudan, choked back tears as he cast his ballot and dedicated the vote to independence leader John Garang - who died in a 2005 helicopter crash - and all those who perished in the war.
"I believe Dr John and all those that died with him are with us today and I must assure them they did not die in vain," he said in the capital Juba shortly after voting.
Just under 4 million Southern Sudanese are registered to put a thumbprint on the ballot - either under a picture of two hands clasping for unity, or one held up as if waving goodbye for secession.
Few doubt that jubilant and expectant Southern Sudanese will vote for independence, but at least 60 per cent of registered voters must turn out for the referendum to be valid.
The vote, which many had doubted would take place on time, has raised fears of a return to conflict between north and south.
However, Sudan's President
Omar al-Bashir during a visit to Juba last week said the north wanted peace and would abide by Southern Sudan's wishes.
Many issues remain unresolved, however, and large oil deposits, most of which lie in the south, have raised the stakes.
The north-south border, which demarcates Sudan's oilfields, has yet to be finalised, as has the status of the oil-producing Abyei region, which must decide whether it goes with north or south.
Al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in a separate conflict in Darfur province, said he believed Abyei has the potential to flare up into war.
A referendum on the status of Abyei originally scheduled for Sunday has been postponed indefinitely.
The international community has put heavy pressure on the north to accept the result, and election observers from the United Nations, European Union, African Union and Carter Center have flocked into Sudan for the vote.
According to Chan Reec Madut, a southerner and deputy chairman of the referendum commission, about 17,000 domestic observers and 1,400 international observers are monitoring the poll.
Even if the expected independence materialises, aid agencies say the underdeveloped Southern Sudan - which also suffers from internal conflicts - needs huge support from the international community.
"The chronic poverty, lack of development and the threat of violence that blight people's daily lives will not disappear after the referendum," said Melinda Young, head of Oxfam in southern Sudan.
According to the referendum commission's timetable, preliminary results will be announced on February 1 and the final results are expected by February 14.