BANGUI (REUTERS) - The Central African Republic voted on Sunday (Dec 27) in presidential and legislative elections being held under a cloud of violence as the government, international partners and United Nations peacekeepers seek to hold off a rebel advance.
Militias hostile to President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who is seeking a second term, have stepped up attacks since the constitutional court this month rejected several candidates, including former president Francois Bozize.
Mr Touadera is considered the favourite in the field of 17 candidates. The election will go to a second round if no candidate receives over 50 per cent of the vote.
Some polling stations in the capital opened with a slight delay amid heavy security, following sporadic gunfire heard during the night, a Reuters witness said.
Heavy gunfire was reported early on Sunday in the town of Bouar, around 435km north-west of the capital, a resident said.
The crisis has left many in the diamond- and gold-rich nation of 4.7 million exhausted, while stirring fears of a return to the worst violence of its recent past, which includes five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960.
"For the last three days, I have been keeping my children close by my side," said Mr Israel Malongou, an entrepreneur in the capital Bangui.
"I want the elections to be over, whoever wins, so that we can get back to our lives."
Mr Touadera was first elected in 2016 following a rebellion three years earlier that ousted Bozize.
He has struggled to wrest control of vast swathes of the country from armed militias.
Successive waves of violence since 2013 have killed thousands and forced over a million from their homes.
Mr Touadera and the UN, which has over 12,800 uniformed peacekeepers in the CAR, have accused Bozize of being behind the rebel offensive, which briefly seized the country's fourth-largest city last week and has led to a wave of desertions from the army.
Bozize's candidacy was rejected because he faces an arrest warrant and UN sanctions for allegedly ordering assassinations and torture while president.
He has denied those charges.
Mr Touadera's international security partners have responded to the latest violence by sending additional troops and equipment, including 300 Russian military instructors and 300 Rwandan peacekeepers.