Despite ongoing unrest in areas, President Omar al-Bashir — wanted on war crimes charges related to the 13-year conflict — has insisted voting go ahead on whether to unite Darfur’s five states into a single region or maintain the status quo.
A united Darfur with greater autonomy has long been a demand of ethnic minority insurgents battling the Sudanese government since 2003, but they have boycotted the referendum, saying it is unfair.
The United States has also voiced concerns, warning that “if held under current rules and conditions, a referendum on Darfur cannot be considered a credible expression of the will of the people”.
Voting got underway at 9:00 am (0600 GMT), with a slow early trickle of people coming to cast their ballots at polling stations guarded by armed police and decorated with posters urging a strong showing.
“All polling centres in Darfur’s five states opened and no centre has encountered any difficulties,” said Omar Ali Jomaa, head of the referendum electoral commission.
“It is too early to assess the turnout.”
The state’s governor Abduwahid Yousif voted early at a centre in an area mostly inhabited by government employees, where nearly 100 women were waiting to cast ballots.
Outside one of the booths in a station at a camp for the displaced on the edge of the town, resident Fathiya Adam Hassan had just voted.
“I voted for a single region, I want a one region to solve Darfur’s problems,” the 38-year-old said.
Searching for her name on a list of registered voters outside the health centre where voting was taking place, Samia Haroun said she supported a five-state system, the choice favoured the ruling National Congress Party.
“I want the five states, I want that choice to win,” she said.
At other locations, only a handful of residents came to vote in the first hours of the referendum.
– International concerns –
Darfur was a single region until 1994 when the government split it into three states, adding another two in 2012, claiming it would make local government more efficient.
The vast western region has been mired in conflict since 2003 when ethnic minority insurgents rebelled against Bashir’s Arab dominated government over claims they were marginalising them.
Rebels have long demanded a return to the single-region system but say current unrest and the high number of people in camps for the displaced mean the vote will not be fair and are boycotting.
Despite Washington’s concerns, Sudan insists the timing is appropriate and that there has been high interest in the vote.
The referendum commission says “3,583,105 out of 4,588,300 entitled to register” have signed up, a figure that cannot be verified because of limited press access to Darfur.
In response to the rebellion in 2003, Bashir launched a brutal counter insurgency combining the use of ground troops, allied militia and air power, and was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Bashir denies all charges.
In addition to the millions of displaced, at least 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict, the UN says, although Khartoum puts the death toll closer to 10,000.
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