C. African presidential candidates urge end to "masquerade"

Central African presidential candidate Karim Meckassoua, pictured on December 28, 2015, is among 20 candidates calling for the election to be scrapped (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo) (AFP/File)

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Twenty out of the 30 candidates vying to be president of the Central African Republic have demanded the election be scrapped after what they said was a tainted first round of voting.

In a joint statement seen by AFP on Monday, the dissenters cited what they described as irregularities and intimidation in ballotting on December 30, partial results of which have been published.

They said refused to be "complicit in this electoral masquerade" and called for the whole process to be "purely and simply stopped."

They invited all players to get around the negotiating table "to draw up ways of safeguarding the nation."

Signatories included heavyweight candidate Karim Meckassoua, a former foreign minister from the minority Muslim community, who had been a pre-election front-runner.

Independent candidate Faustin Archange Touadera, a former prime minister, has taken a commanding lead in the presidential race, garnering more than 23 percent of the vote with a quarter of the ballots counted, electoral officials said Sunday.

The former maths professor had been considered an outsider.

Anicet Georges Dologuele, also a former prime minister, was in second place with Desire Kolingba, son of a former president, in third.

A likely second round is set for January 31.

The election is seen as vital to restoring stability in the former French colony after years of unrest.

Some two million voters were eligible to cast their ballots, for a new president and members of the 105-seat parliament.

Voting passed without major incident and was hailed as a success by the international community.

One of the world's poorest countries, with a history of coups and rebellions, Central African Republic was plunged into fierce sectarian unrest in 2013 after longtime leader Francois Bozize was ousted by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance.

Thousands of people were killed and around one in 10 fled their homes in attacks by rogue rebels on remote villages and brutal reprisals by Christian militia against Muslim communities.

UN and French peacekeepers helped restore a degree of calm in January 2014, when a transitional government took over, but large parts of the country remain lawless.