Counting began Wednesday in an unofficial referendum in the flashpoint Abyei region to decide if it lies in Sudan or South Sudan, observers said, amid African Union warnings the poll is a “threat to peace”.
The fate of Abyei is one of the most important and sensitive issues left unresolved since South Sudan became an independent state in 2011, ending two decades of civil war in Sudan.
“The laborious process of counting the number of ballots cast has begun,” said Tim Flatman, an independent observer in the disputed district, calling the counting a “slow but very transparent process”.
The majority of 65,000 registered voters are believed to have cast their ballots in the three-day long poll which closed Tuesday evening.
Results were expected later Wednesday or Thursday.
AU chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has said the vote was illegal and its organisers were risking sparking a return to war between civil war foes in Juba and Khartoum.
“They pose a threat to peace in the Abyei area, and have the potential to trigger an unprecedented escalation on the ground... with far-reaching consequences for the region as a whole,” she said in a statement on Monday.
Patrolled by some 4,000 Ethiopian-led UN peacekeepers, the area is home to the settled Ngok Dinka tribe, closely connected to South Sudan, as well the semi-nomadic Arab Misseriya, who traditionally move back and forth from Sudan grazing their cattle.
Only the Ngok Dinka are voting in the referendum -- although organisers insist it is open to all -- and the Misseriya have already angrily said they will not recognise the results of any unilateral poll.
Abyei was meant to vote on whether to be part of Sudan or South Sudan in January 2011 -- the same day Juba voted overwhelmingly to split from the north -- as part of the 2005 peace deal which ended Sudan's two-decade long civil war.
That referendum was repeatedly stalled, and Sudanese troops stormed the Lebanon-sized enclave in May 2011 forcing over 100,000 to flee southwards, leaving a year later after international pressure.
Flashpoint Abyei counts vote for Sudan or South Sudan future