South Sudan counts down the hours to independence

Dancers decked in South Sudanese flags and leopard-print trousers marched through the streets of their ramshackle capital Juba today, counting down the hours until Africa's largest country splits into two states at midnight.

Sudan entered its last day as a united nation with rumblings of conflict along its north-south border and international concerns for the future stability of the huge, fractured and largely impoverished territory that straddles Arab and sub-Saharan Africa.

But looming independence already sparked celebrations across the south - and in large diaspora southern communities from the United States to Australia - with many seeing it as a moment of liberation after years of fighting and perceived repression, dating back to raids by Arab slave traders.

"I'm very happy for the independence," said Gabriel Yaac, 38, in central Juba.

"There is nothing bad in the future. If you are alone in your house you can manage your own things. No one will interrupt you."

The country's oil-producing south is to split from the north on Saturday - a separation it won at the climax of an internationally brokered 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war with the north.

The new Republic of South Sudan will take around 75 percent of the country's known oil reserves with it when it goes - depriving the Khartoum government of more than a third of its national revenues, the northern finance minister said last month.

Police and soldiers in Juba tried to keep a lid on the more boisterous revelers - banning celebratory gunfire, seizing weapons and searching cars - determined to protect the scores of dignitaries flowing into a city awash with small arms.

A red digital display on a city roundabout counted down the seconds to independence. "Free at last," one message on the display board flashed.

In sharp contrast, the streets were largely empty in the northern capital Khartoum on Friday, the start of the weekend in the Muslim north.

"Losing the south will be difficult for a few years after losing the oil," minibus driver Osman said. "But all we've had up to now is war. It is good we are going our separate ways."

Other northerners see the separation as a tragedy - robbing Sudan of around a third of its territory and ending a dream of a diverse nation containing a vast patchwork of the continent's cultures.

"This overwhelming of sorrow, of sadness is wrapping around us. I cannot put my feelings into words. It is beyond expression. I am in a vacuum. I want to go into hibernation," the spokeswoman for the opposition UMMA party Mariam al-Mahdi told Reuters.

North and south leaders have still not agreed on how they will manage oil revenues, the lifeblood of both their economies, and other key issues after the split - alarming diplomats who fear they will return to war.

North Sudan has the only pipelines in the country, and has threatened to block them if the south does not pay enough. Southern officials today said they would be able to live off credit, using their oil reserves as collateral, if the north carried out its threat.

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who will lead the north after the split, yesterday said he would fly to Juba for the independence celebrations and promised friendly relations.

But he sent out a stern message to rebel movements in the north, saying he would not take part in any more international peace talks with armed groups. Khartoum is fighting rebels in the Darfur region and, since early June, in its main remaining oil state Southern Kordofan. Both regions border the south.

Analysts have accused Khartoum of targeting civilians from the ethnic Nuba group in Kordofan - many of whom fought alongside south in the civil war - with a military ground and air campaign. Khartoum denies the accusation.

Washington's ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice yesterday said it was vital for U.N. peacekeepers to stay in South Kordofan after the official end of their mandate on the south's independence day. Khartoum has said it wants the blue helmets, deployed to monitor the 2005 peace deal, to go.

South Sudan will start life as one of the least developed nations on earth, despite its oil revenues.

Aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said the south was going through a humanitarian emergency with existing poverty compounded by disease outbreaks, tribal and rebel clashes - and the return of around 300,000 southerners ahead of the independence, many of them needing aid.