Juba (AFP) - Residents of contested region Abyei chose overwhelmingly to join South Sudan in an unofficial referendum, election officials said Thursday, amid warnings the poll could inflame tensions in the volatile region.
Only one of the two ethnic groups living in the area voted in the poll, which is not recognised by either Khartoum or Juba and which the African Union has warned 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 referendum committee has announced the results, and the number of people who have chosen to become part of South Sudan is 99.9 percent of the vote," Luka Biong, spokesman for the Abyei Referendum High Committee, told AFP.
Celebrations including dancing and music broke out after the results were announced, he said.
African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has said the vote was illegal and its organisers risk 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.
Tim Flatman, an independent observer in Abyei, said that 63,433 of 64,775 registered voters voted in the three-day poll which closed Tuesday night, quoting official results.
Only 12 voted to be part of Sudan, a number vastly outweighed by even the 362 spoiled ballots, Flatman said, adding that initial observations suggested a "very transparent process".
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 as the semi-nomadic Arab Misseriya, who traditionally move back and forth from Sudan grazing their cattle.
Only the Ngok Dinka voted -- although organisers insist it was open to all residents -- and the Misseriya have already angrily said they will not recognise the results.
"This referendum is none of our business and it is something with no value... No one in the world will recognise this referendum," top Misseriya chief Mukhtar Babo Nimir told AFP.
"From our side, we will not conduct any referendum", in order not to give legitimacy to the ballot, he added.
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.
"The people are celebrating, there is dancing and music, and the nine chiefs of the Ngok Dinka are marching, they will sign a declaration of committment to join South Sudan," Biong added.
Analysts have warned the poll could trigger fresh violence.
Zacharia Diing Akol, of the South Sudan's think tank the Sudd Institute, warned this week of a "potentially explosive, precarious situation", noting that Khartoum and Juba fought over the enclave in 2008 and 2011.
"The Ngok Dinka political leadership is aware that neither country will accept the results of the referendum," the Small Arms Survey said, a Swiss-based research group, but explaining that the "high-risk strategy" of the vote was "the one thing" the Ngok Dinka could do for itself.