Officials from South Sudan said today that voter turnout for the proposed-nation's independence referendum has passed the 60 percent threshold in just three days of voting.
"The mark that would make the referendum be considered valid is passed," Dr. Anne Itto, the Secretary General for the South Sudan's ruling party, told reporters.
She did not give exact turnout numbers, but said the assessment was based on polling figures and results gathered in the 10 states of Southern Sudan by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, known as the SPLM.
The referendum is part of the 2005 peace agreement which ended a 20-year civil war between the Islamic north and the predominantly Christian and animist south Sudan.
In order for the referendum to be valid at least 60 percent of the nearly 4 million registered South Sudanese voters must participate. International election observers, including former president Jimmy Carter and actor George Clooney have been monitoring the voting and report that thus far there have been no irregularities with the poll.
Voting will last until Jan. 15 and the results could be announced as soon as Feb. 6 and as late as February 15, according to the SPLM.
The government of Sudan in Khartoum must accept the poll and the results in order for the referendum to be considered valid. For months, officials of Sudan's ruling party allied with President Omar Al-Bashir, threatened not to accept the referendum results. In recent weeks President Al-Bashir has publicly declared that if Southern Sudan wants to leave, the government will support its independence.
Clooney told ABC News when he visited the country three months ago, the referendum happening at all still seemed very much in jeopardy.
"No one thought that they were going to pull this referendum off by Jan. 9, not anybody," he said. " Most of the people even in the government here, certainly most of the people in the U.N., at the Security Council who were here when I was here a hundred days ago, and every one to a man said this would be delayed. "
South Sudan Celebrates Independence Before Voting Ends
United States officials have said that they would consider removing Sudan from the state-sponsored terror list, which has imposed harsh sanctions on the country for over a decade, if Khartoum peacefully accepts the referendum result and meets all the conditions under the peace deal.
Even after results are announced, the separation process will take at least six months. Analysts and aid groups worry that in that time the potential for violence erupting is still high.
As voting began on Sunday more than 20 police officers were killed and 30 others wounded in an attack by Arab militia-men in the disputed oil-rich border region of Abyei. The tribesmen reportedly used anti-tank weapons and artillery, which South Sudanese officials say were supplied by north Sudan's military, a charge Khartoum denies.
There are also reports that at least 10 South Sudanese were killed in an ambush by the same tribe of Arab militia-men as they tried to cross the border from the north into the south to vote.
Clooney and John Prendergrast of the Enough Project visited Abyei and said tensions there remain high. They've been calling attention to the possibility of violence surrounding the referendum for the last year, even helping to funding the Sudan Sentinel project, which uses satellite technology to monitor military build-ups on the border and human rights abuses.
"If you listen to the State Department, if you listen to the intelligence agencies, if you listen to the president of the United States, if you listen to any analyst here...this place has the greatest chance to be the largest conventional war of the 21st century," Clooney told ABC News. "We're trying to stop a war before it starts."
The celebrations in South Sudan have already begun before the voting is finished. Signs all over South Sudan's capital Juba are pro-separation, and anti-Khartoum. "Bye Bye Bashir" read one banner, a sign of the long-standing animosity between the south and the north.
That animosity fueled a 20-year civil war that killed more than two 2 people.