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Countdown Continues for Southern Sudan's Big Vote

The President of the Republic of Sudan Omar al-Bashir, center, is escorted by Salva Kiir Mayardit, the Vice President of the Republic of Sudan, left,as he arrives at the airport in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba, 04 Jan 2011.

Just five days remain until a referendum on Southern Sudan's independence. Sudan President Omar al-Bashir visited the southern capital, Juba.

The visit by President Omar al-Bashir is intended to be another indication the vote on southern independence will not lead to war.

President Bashir was greeted at Juba International Airport this morning by the southern president, Salva Kiir, and other high-ranking members of the southern government.

With southerners headed to the polls Sunday to begin voting on whether to remain united with the north or break away to form their own country, Bashir said his government wanted a future of peaceful cooperation between north and south.

Bashir says there will be economic, political and social relations between the two countries if Sudan votes for independence. He says that is because it has always been one nation and people in the border areas will continue to have especially close relations with both northern and southern Sudan.

The vote on independence will last one week, from the ninth to the 15. It is the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended 21 years of civil war between north and south. Southerners are expected to vote overwhelmingly for separation.

Residents of Juba lined the streets along President Bashir's route from the airport to the president's compound. There were more smiles on the faces of residents in Juba than you see here most days.

They waved four-foot-tall paper hands that said "Time for Separation" and small flags with pictures of the symbol for separation, an open palm held up as if waving goodbye.

In a speech shortly after arriving, Mr. Bashir also acknowledged that a vote for separation is likely. He said his government would be the first one to come to Juba and congratulate southerners on their independence.

But issues remain to be worked out before a smooth divorce can happen. The two sides have not agreed on citizenship for southerners living in the north, and they have not agreed on how to share oil wealth or how to divide the country's $38-billion debt.

After years of delays since the 2005 peace deal was signed and months of accusations between the northern and southern ruling parties, high-ranking members of the northern government appear to have begun to accept southern secession.

Southern government Minister of Information Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the south appreciated the north's neighborly gestures.

"He [President Bashir] has stressed that should the people of south Sudan choose to be an independent state he will be the first with his government to recognize the newborn state. And I think this is a great statement," he said.

The president's meetings ended with a press conference. The southern government announced it will not allow rebels from Darfur to stay in the south. Both sides also agreed to resolve all post-referendum issues before July 9, the official date of the possible southern independence.