JUBA, Sudan — A small handful of voters cast ballots Saturday, the final day of Southern Sudan's weeklong independence referendum, as officials and observers noted high turnout and praised the mostly peaceful voting process.

Celebrations from southerners excited about the birth of their new nation are scheduled to begin soon.

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Results will start trickling in immediately after polls close Saturday evening, but there is little suspense. Almost everyone expects the south to vote overwhelmingly to break away from the north, cleaving one of Africa's larger nations in two to create the world's newest country.

Officials and observers reported high voter turnout.

Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, the chairman of the south's referendum commission, said 83 percent of those registered in the south and 53 percent of those registered in the north had cast their votes. He also cited a 91 percent turnout rate among Sudanese voters in eight other countries. Officials had said there were some 3.9 million registered voters.

Khalil said he believed the referendum would be judged as "a good result by any international standard," noting that the commission set up the vote in four months.

"We have come a long way, making long strides to reach the stage where we are today," said Khalil, a lawyer from northern Sudan who is 90 years old.

He echoed predictions that the south would choose to split from the north.

"All indications show that the south will lean toward separation," he said, adding, "I don't derive any pleasure from announcing the splitting of Sudan in two ... on the contrary, I would rather have hoped the country would remain united."

Sudan's ruling party in the north said Friday it was ready to accept southern independence. Border demarcation, oil rights and the status of the contested region of Abyei still have to be negotiated.

If the process stays on track, southern Sudan will become the world's newest country in July.

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