Central Africans cast their ballots for peace

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Central Africans cast their ballots for peace
A child walks between classrooms in a school set in the Mpoko refugee camp near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Over 6000 children attend the school ran by a local NGO and funded by the UN. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, ran in the second round of presidential elections Sunday to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Children lay on the ground in a classroom in a school set in the Mpoko refugee camp near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Over 6,000 children attend the school ran by a local NGO and funded by the UN. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, ran in the second round of presidential elections Sunday to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Children show they drawings to the teacher in a school set in the Mpoko refugee camp near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Over 6000 children attend the school ran by a local NGO and funded by the UN. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, ran in the second round of presidential elections Sunday to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A child peeks through a classroom in a school set in the Mpoko refugee camp near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Over 6000 children attend the school ran by a local NGO and funded by the UN. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, ran in the second round of presidential elections Sunday to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Election officials process ballot boxes just brought to the central election commission warehouse in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, ran in the second round of presidential elections Sunday to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Election officials bring ballot boxes to the central election commission warehouse to be processed in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, ran in the second round of presidential elections Sunday to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Ballot boxes, some empty, are set long along a wall at the central election commission warehouse where votes are processed in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, ran in the second round of presidential elections Sunday to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A child stands in front of a voters' list at a polling station in Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A woman casts her ballot in the second round of presidential election and first round of legislative elections in the Fatima district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Voters queue to cast their ballots in the second round of presidential election and the fourth district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A man casts his ballot in the second round of presidential election and the first round of legislative elections in the Fatima district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Women who could not vote because their polling stations changed, sit after polling stations closed in the second round of presidential election in Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
People line up to cast their ballot in the second round of presidential election and first round of legislative elections in the Fatima district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A woman goes through a security check before entering a polling station for the second round of presidential election and the first round of legislative elections in the PK5 district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
People line up to cast their ballot in the second round of presidential election and first round of legislative elections in the Fatima district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Former Prime Minister Faustin Archange Touadera casts his ballot in the second round of presidential election and the first round of legislative elections in Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A woman casts her ballot in the second round of presidential election and the first round of legislative elections in the Fatima district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. Two former prime ministers, Faustin Archange Touadera and Anicet Georges Dologuele, are running neck-and-neck in the second round of presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic. Central Africans will also vote in Legislative elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Counted votes are seen after polls closed following the second round presidential and legislatives elections in Bangui, on February 14, 2016. The Central African Republic held delayed presidential and parliamentary polls on February 14, with voters desperate to usher in peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
An election worker counts votes after polls closed following the second round presidential and legislatives elections in Bangui, on February 14, 2016, as people go to the polls to take part in the country's delayed legislative and presidential elections. The Central African Republic holds delayed presidential and parliamentary polls on February 14, with voters desperate to usher in peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
People queue at a polling station in the muslim district of PK 5 in Bangui before voting on February 14, 2016 as people go to the polls to take part in the Central African Republic second round of the presidential and legislative elections. Voters in the Central African Republic began casting ballots on February 14 in delayed legislative elections and a presidential run-off which they hope will bring peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.The nation, dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France, could take a step towards rebirth if the polls go smoothly. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A vote officer sits next to ballot boxes at the polling station at Bangui city hall during Central African Republic second round of the presidential and legislative elections in February 14, 2016. Voters in the Central African Republic began casting ballots on February 14 in delayed legislative elections and a presidential run-off which they hope will bring peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.The nation, dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France, could take a step towards rebirth if the polls go smoothly. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
People queue at a polling station in Bangui before voting for the Central African Republic second round of the presidential and legislative elections on February 14, 2016. Voters in the Central African Republic began casting ballots on February 14 in delayed legislative elections and a presidential run-off which they hope will bring peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.The nation, dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France, could take a step towards rebirth if the polls go smoothly. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A United Nations (UN) peacekeepers stands guard outside a polling station in Bangui as people go to the polls to take part in the Central African Republic second round of the presidential and legislative elections on February 14, 2016. Voters in the Central African Republic began casting ballots on February 14 in delayed legislative elections and a presidential run-off which they hope will bring peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.The nation, dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France, could take a step towards rebirth if the polls go smoothly. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
People queue at a polling station in the muslim district of PK 5 in Bangui before voting on February 14, 2016 as people go to the polls to take part in the Central African Republic second round of the presidential and legislative elections. Voters in the Central African Republic began casting ballots on February 14 in delayed legislative elections and a presidential run-off which they hope will bring peace after the country's worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.The nation, dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France, could take a step towards rebirth if the polls go smoothly. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of the Central African Republic second round presidential candidate Anicet Georges Dologuele gather and hold his photo up during his presidential campaign, at the Bangui stadium on February 12, 2016, ahead of the Febuary 14 presidential and legislatives elections. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
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BANGUI, Feb 14 - Central Africans wrapped up voting to elect new democratic leadership on Sunday, determined to turn the page on years of bloodshed that has killed thousands and split the impoverished nation along religious and ethnic lines.

One of the world's most chronically unstable countries, Central African Republic was pitched into the worst crisis in its history in early 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters toppled President Francois Bozize.

Christian militias responded to Seleka abuses by attacking the Muslim minority community. One in five Central Africans has fled, either internally or abroad, to escape the violence.

Two ex-prime ministers, Faustin-Archange Touadera and Anicet-Georges Dologuele, were contesting a presidential run-off that will determine who will be charged with the enormous challenge of restoring peace and reuniting the nation.

Touadera has portrayed himself as an anti-corruption stalwart, while Dologuele pledges to revive the economy and draw in investors hesitant until now to exploit significant gold, diamond and uranium deposits.

Authorities were also trying to re-run a first round of legislative polls which were canceled over irregularities.

In Bangui's PK5 neighborhood, the capital's principal remaining Muslim enclave following ethnic cleansing, some voters arrived before dawn to queue at the main polling center.

Alima Zeinabou Shaibou, 32, who like most Muslims in the southwest has been forced to leave her home, crossed the road from the mosque where she now lives with her five children to be among the first voters.

"I want there to be a change. I want Christians and Muslims to live together as before," she said.

The voting center in PK5 witnessed violent attacks by local militia during a December constitutional referendum. And though the situation has remained largely calm during the election period, Sunday's vote was held under heavy security.

Armed soldiers from MINUSCA, the country's 11,000-strong U.N. mission, guarded polling stations while attack helicopters circled in the skies over Bangui. Armored vehicles from a 900-soldier French military contingent patrolled the streets.

"AN ACT OF LOVE"

As voting stations closed around 4 p.m. (1500 GMT), poll workers at a school in central Bangui immediately emptied ballot boxes and began counting votes.

Observers and elections officials praised the organization of the vote, a marked improvement from a Dec. 30 first round when ballot materials arrived late or not at all in many areas.

First round turnout of nearly 80 percent was largely viewed as a popular rejection of the violence, which has left the northeast under the control of Muslim rebels while Christian militias roam the southwest.

"I wish a happy Valentine's Day to everyone," Dologuele said after casting his vote. "I would like Central Africans to consider (voting today) an act of love for their country."

Both Dologuele, a banker, and trained mathematics professor Touadera have made the restoration of peace and security the centerpiece of their campaigns.

Both candidates are Christians. They also both have close ties with deposed leader Bozize, a fact that has raised concern among some diplomats and observers who worry that the election result risks changing little.

While the polls should reinstate democracy after three years of unpopular interim administrations, analysts warn the election is only the first step in the long process of pulling Central African Republic back from the abyss.

"It's cheaper to buy a grenade in Bangui than it is to buy a can of Coke. That's how bad it is here," said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.

(Additional reporting by Leger Serge Kokpakpa and Crispin Dembassa-Kette; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Stephen Powell)

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