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Ethiopia's Sidama people vote on regional state

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Hawassa (Ethiopia) (AFP)

People in Ethiopia’s ethnic Sidama region voted on Wednesday in a referendum that could carve out a new federal state in a nation already struggling with community tensions.

With heavy security on the streets, the mood on Wednesday in the regional capital Hawassa appeared calm.

But the Sidama push for autonomy already triggered days of unrest in July that left dozens dead, and prompted the government to place Ethiopia's southern region under the control of soldiers and federal police.

Long queues at polling stations began gathering during the night, with some 2.3 million people registered to vote.

"This is a special day for me," said Fitsum Anbese, 32, a laboratory technician, who started queueing to vote two hours before daybreak, when polls opened. "I will be recognised for my identity, so I'm happy."

- 'Excitement' -

"I stayed up until late in the night," said 27-year old Fantahun Hatiso, after casting his ballot.

"The excitement of waiting for this day, which will bring liberty and peace to my people, kept me awake."

Away from the polling stations, the streets of Hawassa were much quieter than usual, with Wednesday declared a holiday for the vote.

With apparently overwhelming support among Sidamas to form their own state, people said they were keen to see a peaceful vote.

Many fear the harder test will come once final results are announced.

"I want all of us to respect each other and avoid divisions," said Hagersew Haso, a 30-year-old worker at the national telecommunications company.

"I want us to have and live in a peaceful, one Ethiopia."

The referendum on autonomy springs from a federal system designed to provide widespread ethnic self-rule in a hugely diverse country, Africa's second most populous, with more than 100 million people.

At present, Ethiopia is partitioned into nine semi-autonomous regional states -- with the Sidama voting for a potential tenth.

The constitution requires the government to organise a referendum for any ethnic group that wants to form a new entity.

- Inspiration for others -

The Sidama -- who number more than three million -- have agitated for years to leave the diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region.

The dream gained fresh momentum after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, took office last year.

At least 10 other groups in the south of the country have already launched plans for self-determination similar to that of the Sidama. Analysts fear it could unleash further ethnic violence.

Abiy has spent recent months trying to put a damper on other statehood bids, pleading for patience in meetings with leaders of ethnic groups trying to follow the Sidama example.

If, as many expect, the people in Sidama choose to form a new state, the implementation of the referendum is expected to raise a host of thorny issues.

One major sticking point is the status of Hawassa, which the Sidama are eyeing as the capital of their would-be state.

The city is ethnically diverse -- only about half the population is Sidama -- and up to now has served as the administrative centre for the entire southern region.

Polls opened at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) and close at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT). Preliminary results are expected on Thursday.

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