Sudan braced for clashes as election votes are counted

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The Independent Online

Sudan was braced for possible clashes in its oil-producing regions last night as provisional results in its historic election led to accusations of fraud and hijacking of the count in some areas.

While the first open poll in 24 years has been criticised internationally for irregularities it has so far been largely peaceful since voting began on 11 April.

The international community, led by the US, has admitted that the poll was not "free and fair" but said it was still a useful step towards a peaceful referendum on dividing Africa's third biggest oil producer into two separate countries.

However, tensions centred on the belt of oil-producing states that runs across the middle of the vast country could shatter the fragile calm. In Unity State, which holds the largest reserves of crude, the counting was suspended yesterday amid reports that security officers loyal to the incumbent governor had taken over counting offices. Further north there were reports of a major troop build-up in Blue Nile State. "The country will be peaceful while the counting goes on," said Fouad Hikmat, a regional analyst with International Crisis Group. "But I'm sceptical that this calm can be maintained after results are announced."

Sudan's President, Omar al-Bashir, looks set for a resounding national win after running largely unopposed. A selection of provisional results issued by state-controlled media showed Mr Bashir gaining 90 per cent of the vote. But the outcome of hotly contested state governor races, especially in oil-producing states, could still cause instability.

The election, which was part of the peace deal that ended the civil war, was meant to move Sudan towards becoming a democratic state. But efforts at multi-party democracy were undermined by a deal between Mr Bashir's NCP party, which dominates the north, and the main opposition SPLM, which dominates the south. The agreement saw the latter withdraw its challenger to Mr Bashir in return for assurances over the coming referendum on secession.