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.
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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)