An official shows the ballot lock number during the last day of voting for a referendum, at a registration centre at Al Fashir in North Darfur April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah(reuters_tickers)
By Khalid Abdelaziz
EL FASHER, Sudan (Reuters) - Darfuris concluded voting on Wednesday in a referendum on whether to reunite the states of their arid western region, amid a boycott by rebel groups that accuse the government of rigging the vote to keep Darfur divided.
The Sudanese government's decision to split Darfur into three states in 1994 helped fuel discontent that eventually erupted into fighting - rebels and many from the large Fur tribe said the break-up allowed Khartoum to weaken and rule them.
Officials said turnout was high in the vote, which Sudan has presented as a major concession. Results are expected next week.
"According to the reports we've been getting, there has been large turnout and widespread participation from voters," Darfur referendum commission head Omar Ali Gemaa told Reuters.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government based in the capital Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination.
According to the United Nations, some 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur, 4.4 million people need aid and more than 2.5 million have been displaced.
Although violence has eased in recent years, the insurgency continues and Khartoum has escalated attacks on rebels over the past year. At least 130,000 people have fled fighting in the central Jebel Marra area since mid-January alone.
The two main rebel groups fighting in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army, have accused the government of rigging the vote in its favour, to keep Darfur split into several states.
They have called on their members to boycott the referendum and have said a political settlement must come first, warning that this week's vote will only lead to more violence.
Some who chose not to vote said the referendum would not address their immediate concerns.
"We're in need of food, water, and protection from militias...those going hungry aren't concerned with whether Darfur is a region or state," said 43-year-old Ahmed Adam, a resident of an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp.
The United States this week expressed "serious concern" over "inadequate registration" in the referendum. "If held under current rules and conditions...it will undermine the peace process now under way," a U.S. State Department statement said.
Others found reason to reunite Darfur into a single state.
"I support Darfur becoming a state and I voted for this, because the state system offers better services in terms of education and health," said 21-year-old university student Nadra al-Tahir.
Analysts and diplomats say the government opposes a unified Darfur, concerned that this would give the rebels a platform to push for independence - just as the south successfully did in 2011, taking with it most of the country's oil reserves.
(Additional reporting by Ola Noureldin; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Dominic Evans)