War-torn Central African Republic bids for peace in key vote

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SHAFAQNA – Voters head to the polls in the Central African Republic on Wednesday to seek an end to almost three years of lawlessness in the diamond-producing nation.

The presidential and legislative elections were postponed from December 27 because ballots hadn’t been distributed. Two earlier deadlines to organize the vote this year were also missed. Polling stations opened in Bangui, the capital, at about 6am and are scheduled to close at 4pm.

“People are happy today because there is no gunfire,” said Awa Asta, a 41-year-old voter who lives in the last remaining Muslim enclave in the city. “All the Muslims in my area have come out to vote so that we will have peace and can move about freely.”

Asta’s neighborhood, known as PK5, holds about 15,000 Muslims and is surrounded by hostile militia that have driven out more than 100,000 Muslims from other parts of the city. It’s become a symbol of the sectarian strife in the Central African Republic.

The country has been mired in violence since a 2013 coup that toppled then-President Francois Bozize and enabled armed groups to seize control of the countryside. Thousands have been killed and about a fifth of the population has fled in what the United Nations describes as a “critical” human-rights situation.

Front-runners among the 30 presidential candidates are two former prime ministers, Anicet-Georges Dologuele and Martin Ziguele. A second round will be held on January 31 if none of the candidates wins a clear majority.

“There is a lot of expectations for change of governance among the population but the candidates look like old wine in a new bottle, so will they be able to bring real change?” Thierry Vircoulon, a Central Africa expert who lectures at the Paris School of International Affairs, said via e-mail.

The ouster of Mr Bozize by mainly Muslim rebels was marked by widespread killings of civilians, prompting non-Muslims to set up armed groups known as Anti-balaka militia. An interim government appointed in January 2014 has failed to extend its influence outside Bangui.

Many armed groups now earn income from illegal exports of gold, diamonds and other resources, according to the UN.

Lewis Mudge, country researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the new government will be faced with “seemingly intractable problems.”

“Much of the country is still controlled by a myriad of armed groups, hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are displaced both inside and outside of the country, the judicial system is barely functioning and disarmament has not begun in earnest,” Mr Mudge said in e-mailed comments.

A grenade attack on a vehicle used by a presidential candidate killed three people in the capital on Monday. The Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and the country’s Muslim leader, Omar Kobir Layama, on Tuesday organized a public meeting in PK5 to call for peace and urge people to cast their ballots.

Mr Bozize wasn’t allowed to run in the elections because of his previous tenure. His political party and spokesmen of Anti-balaka militia said last week they endorsed Mr Dologuele.

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