Polls have opened in the Central African Republic (CAR) to choose a new president and parliament amid fears of escalating violence as the government tries to hold off a rebel advance on the capital, Bangui.
Armed groups hostile to President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who is seeking a second term, have stepped up attacks since the constitutional court rejected several candidacies, including that of former President Francois Bozize, earlier this month.
Touadera is considered the favourite in the field of 17 candidates.
His main challenger is Anicet Georges Dologuele, a former prime minister who finished runner-up in 2016 and is supported by Bozize.
The election will go to a second round if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
The crisis has left many in the diamond and gold-rich nation of 4.7 million exhausted, stirring fears of a return to the worst violence of CAR’s recent past.
“We’ve seen hundreds of people here, many of them are telling us they are determined to cast their ballot for peace,” she said, speaking from the capital Bangui.
“Voting is still going on smoothly in many parts.”
Soi said there have been reports of people hiding out in bushes in some areas, fearing for their safety.
“Some people are waiting to see how safe it can be for them to come out and vote,” she said. “We have been talking to UN officials as well who have told us that these problem areas are few and most of the country is safe enough for people to come out and cast their voting ballots.”
Since independence from France in 1960, the country has experienced five coups and numerous rebellions.
Several opposition candidates as well as a recently formed coalition of armed groups – the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) – have called for the elections to be delayed, but the CAR government and the United Nations have rejected the call.The CPC – comprising several armed groups accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch (HRW) – launched an offensive last week and threatened to march on Bangui.
The government called the move a “coup” led by Bozize, a claim the former president denied.
The rebel alliance briefly seized Bambari, the CAR’s fourth-largest city, last week but their progress was halted when Russia and Rwanda sent troops to shore up Touadera’s government, while the UN mission in South Sudan sent 300 peacekeepers to the country to “secure” Sunday’s elections.
More than 55,000 people have fled their homes for fear of violence in recent weeks, according to the UN, while HRW said at least five civilians had been killed.
On Saturday, the UN – which has more than 12,800 peacekeepers in the country – said “unidentified armed combatants” killed three peacekeepers from Burundi in attacks in the central Kemo prefecture and the southern Mbomou prefecture.