Just hours before south Sudan becomes independent, a mood of joyful expectation swept through its capital on Friday, with crowds dancing in the streets amid last-minute preparations for Saturday’s historic ceremony.
World leaders started to arrive on the eve of independence, including UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
“The people of south Sudan have achieved their dream. The UN and the international community will continue to stand by south Sudan. I am very happy to be here,” Ban told reporters at the UN airport in Juba.
He spoke after north Sudan officially recognised southern independence, in a statement read out in Khartoum by the minister of presidential affairs and broadcast on state television.
Earlier in the day, processions of ex-veterans, soldiers and civilians, including women’s groups, marched through the city centre in the hot sun, some dressed in traditional clothing, playing drums and dancing.
Nearby, workers toiled to ready the main venue at the mausoleum of John Garang.
The southern rebel leader was killed only months after a 2005 peace deal ended decades of conflict with Khartoum and opened the door to eventual nationhood.
In a reminder of the devastating conflict — and the belated state of the preparations — a British-based mine clearance group said on Friday that it was called in by the Juba government last week to clear unexploded ordnance from a large area opposite Garang’s mausoleum.
The area was littered with leftover munitions including rockets, mortar rounds, artillery shells and grenades, and the work was completed on Tuesday.
Information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin insisted, however, that preparations were on track for Saturday’s celebrations, when millions of southern Sudanese, and foreign dignitaries including 30 African leaders, will mark the birth of the world’s newest nation.
Church bells are due to ring out at midnight (2100 GMT) on Friday.
The main ceremony will include military parades, prayers, raising the newly proclaimed Republic of South Sudan’s flag and the country’s first president, Salva Kiir, signing the transitional constitution.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, a key guest at the independence ceremony, repeated his claim to want a secure and stable south on Thursday, while adding that good future relations between the two countries depended on secure borders and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
Southern officials have said that Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, will be the main guest of honour.
But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who is also due to arrive on Saturday morning, said he would try to avoid an encounter with Bashir by remaining among other international dignitaries such as British Foreign Minister William Hague.
“Just because Bashir is there does not mean that we should not show our support” at the independence ceremony, Juppe said on Thursday.
South Sudan’s celebrations come after more than 50 years of conflict between the southern rebels and successive Khartoum governments that left the region in ruins, millions of people dead and a legacy of mutual mistrust.
The 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) that finally ended the conflict, and which was signed under intense pressure from foreign countries, particularly the United States, Britain and Norway, paved the way for a referendum on southern independence in January.
Around 99 percent of southerners voted to split from the north.
Among the US delegation flying to Juba are Washington’s ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, Colin Powell, former secretary of state and a key figure in the CPA negotiations, and US envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman.