Juba, SOUTH SUDAN — Southern Sudanese and dignitaries from around the world watched the new flag of the Republic of South Sudan be raised for the first time at independence celebrations in the new country’s capital, Juba, on Saturday.
The crowd turned ecstatic as the flag was raised while the old one was lowered.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country on Saturday.
South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, signed the transitional constitution and then took the oath of office with his hand on the document.
Moments earlier, James Wani Igga, the speaker of the legislative assembly, read aloud the proclamation of independence to cheers from the crowd.
“We have waited for this day for 56 years,” said James Makuach, who was among the tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese gathered under a blazing sun.
“I have only seen war, so this is an emotional moment for me. No more war,” he added.
Northerners and southerners were engaged in a two-decade long civil war that left around 2 million people dead. That conflict ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Mr. Mayardit noted that for years southerners were treated like refugees in their own country.
“We have to forgive, but we will not forget,” he added.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir stood with his former enemies and congratulated them on their independence.
Southerners voted overwhelmingly in a Jan. 9 referendum to secede from the north. A similar referendum was to be held in Abyei, an oil-rich region that straddles the border that divides north from south and is claimed by both sides. Both sides are nowhere close to reaching a solution on Abyei.
President Obama said in a statement that the status of Abyei must be resolved through negotiations. He added that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement must be fully implemented and violence in the northern Sudanese state of Southern Kordofan must end.
Speaking at the event in Juba, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also made a pointed reference to the fact that the CPA has not been fully implemented. He referred to the situation involving Abyei as well as the violence in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states where he said the “voices of the people” have not been heard.
“Let differences be resolved around the negotiating table,” Mr. Ban said.
In his speech, Lt. Gen. Bashir said the north had “offered what we could to achieve peace and stability and fulfilled the commitments of peace in the south and in Darfur.”
He called on Mr. Obama to fulfill his promise of lifting sanctions in order to normalize relations between the U.S. and Sudan.
The U.S. and Britain announced that they were formally recognizing South Sudan as a sovereign and independent state.
Mr. Mayardit said the people of Abyei, Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan have not been forgotten and pledged to find a just peace.
He offered an amnesty to armed groups fighting his government across most of the states in the new nation.
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Mr. Obama said the day of southern independence was a reminder that “after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible.”
“A proud flag flies over Juba and the map of the world has been redrawn. These symbols speak to the blood that has been spilled, the tears that have been shed, the ballots that have been cast, and the hopes that have been realized by so many millions of people. The eyes of the world are on the Republic of South Sudan,” he added.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, led the U.S. delegation. Noting the challenges that face the fledgling state she said: “No true friend would offer false comfort.”
“The path ahead will be steep… but the Republic of South Sudan is being born amid great hopes,” she added.
The new president acknowledged these challenges and promised a government that would work for the people and be free of corruption.
The scorching sun took its toll. Red Cross volunteers scurried among the crowd on numerous occasions to attend to people and parade participants who were felled by the heat. The celebration concluded with a 21-gun salute and a fly past by four helicopters. Soon after, Juba was drenched by a welcome summer rainstorm.