Juba– South Sudan's ruling party said Wednesday that the 60-percent turnout threshold required for a landmark independence vote to be declared valid has been reached after just three days of polling.
The former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement cited its own estimates for the achievement which has to be officially confirmed by the South Sudan Referendum Commission that is organizing the week-long vote.
But there were long queues at polling stations again on Wednesday as voters responded to calls from the party for a "100 percent turnout," although the shine was taken off the jubilant mood in the south by deadly tensions over the flashpoint district of Abyei on the border with the north.
"The mark that would make the referendum valid is past," said SPLM deputy secretary general Anne Itto, referring to the threshhold set by a 2005 peace agreement that ended a devastating 22-year civil war with the north in which an estimated two million people died.
"The 60-percent threshold has been achieved but we… are asking for a 100-percent turnout."
Referendum commission spokeswoman Suad Ibrahim said the SPLM's boast was plausible. "It's quite possible. It could even be higher," she told AFP.
Loudspeaker trucks criss-crossed the potholed dirt tracks of the southern regional capital Juba urging voters to respond to the call.
"It is important that you go out to vote, have your cards with you. You have only three days more, freedom can't wait," the hailers intoned to the accompaniment of loud African music.
Itto accused the government in Khartoum of backing Arab militias in Abyei, where clashes broke out over the weekend killing at least 33 people.
"I condemn the attacks on the Abyei villages," she said, charging that northern troops had taken part alongside militiamen of the Popular Defense Forces and nomadic Misseriya Arab tribesmen, who have been fighting settled pro-southern Dinka farmers for control of the territory.
"The idea is to discourage Abyei from wanting self-determination, and I think it is not right at all to subdue people by force," she said.
The district had been due to hold a plebiscite on its own future alongside the southern referendum, but it has been indefinitely postponed amid deadlock between northern and southern leaders over who should be eligible to take part.
The Misseriya, who migrate to Abyei each dry season to find water and pasture for their livestock, insist they should have the same right to vote as the Dinka, who live in the district all year.
SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum, who is the south's pointman for the implementation of the 2005 peace deal with the north, said the ex-rebels stood ready to hold direct talks with National Congress Party of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
"There is a proposal to hold a meeting, maybe here (Juba) or in Addis Ababa, and the SPLM is ready to sit with the NCP to overcome the crisis," he said.
"The situation now is calm although there is a lot of tension in the area. There are fears that Misseriya groups or militias may attack again," he told reporters at Juba airport after flying back from a tour of Abyei.
Former UN chief Kofi Annan, who has been observing the referendum in the south, called for a swift resolution of the Abyei conflict.
"I hope the parties will buckle down and tackle the issue of Abyei. The sooner they resolve it the better," he told reporters at Juba airport as he prepared to fly out to Kenya.
"When you leave such issues to fester and to linger, you can be surprised and it can lead to miscalculations by one side or the other," he said, adding that nonetheless he had been overwhelmed by the jubilant mood at the polls in the south.
"I have never been to an election when I have seen so many smiles," he said.
Ambassador Princeton Lyman said Washington was prepared to reconsider Khartoum's presence on the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism if the northern government acknowledged the legitimacy of the southern referendum result.
Khartoum called on Washington to turn its words into actions.
"The United States should take practical steps and prompt measures… to remove Sudan from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, lift the sanctions and remove the political obstacles it has created that prevent Sudan's foreign debts being written off," said foreign ministry spokesman Khalid Musa.