Sudan\’s war-scarred Darfur region voted Monday in the first day of a referendum on its future status despite international criticism, a rebel boycott and protests in camps for the displaced.
President Omar al-Bashir — wanted on war crimes charges over the conflict — has insisted voting go ahead on whether to unite Darfur\’s five states into a single region or maintain the status quo.
A united Darfur with greater autonomy has long been a demand of ethnic minority insurgents battling the Sudanese government since 2003, but they have boycotted the referendum, saying it is unfair.
The United States has also voiced concerns, warning "if held under current rules and conditions, a referendum on Darfur cannot be considered a credible expression of the will of the people".
Voting got underway at 9:00 am (0600 GMT) on Monday, the first of three days of voting.
A slow trickle of people in North Darfur state capital El Fasher turned out to cast their ballots in polling stations guarded by armed police and decorated with posters urging a strong showing.
The state\’s governor Abduwahid Yousif voted early at a small school serving as a polling station in an area mostly inhabited by government employees, where around 100 women were queuing to cast their ballots.
At another polling station in a camp for the displaced, resident Fathiya Adam Hassan had just voted.
"I voted for a single region, I want one region to solve Darfur\’s problems," the 38-year-old said outside the booth.
Searching for her name on a list of registered voters outside the health centre where voting was taking place, Samia Haroun said she supported a five-state system, the choice favoured by the ruling National Congress Party.
A spokesman for the West Darfur government said that voting had started in the state with minor hiccups.
Darfur was a single region until 1994 when the government split it into three states, adding another two in 2012, claiming it would make local government more efficient.
The vast western region has been mired in conflict since 2003 when ethnic minority insurgents rebelled against Bashir\’s Arab-dominated government over claims they were marginalising them.
Rebels have long demanded a return to the single-region system but say current unrest means the vote will not be fair.
"The government turns a blind eye to the fundamental matters, which is stability and security in Darfur," said Jibril Bilal, spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement.
He said most people in Darfur were "not interested in the referendum because they know the result is a foregone conclusion for the National Congress".
Rebel groups also questioned how the displaced would vote and residents of three IDP camps in Central Darfur held peaceful demonstrations against the ballot.
"We protested in the three camps of Hamidiya, Khams Dagaig and Hasahisa, we marched around the camps chanting: \’No to the referendum!\’," said Ibarhim Sudi a resident of the Hamidiya camp and member of its IDP office, without giving precise numbers for the people taking part.
Police also dispersed around 300 student demonstrators at El Fasher university on Monday afternoon who were chanting slogans against the vote, an AFP correspondent said.
Despite US concerns and rebel objections, Sudan insists the timing is appropriate and that there has been high interest in the vote.
The referendum commission says "3,583,105 out of 4,588,300 entitled to register" have signed up, a figure that cannot be verified because of limited press access to Darfur.
In response to the rebellion in 2003, Bashir unleashed ground troops, allied militia and air power, and was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Bashir denies all charges.
At least 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict, the UN says, although Khartoum puts the death toll closer to 10,000.