Election workers count votes after polls closed during the presidential and legislative elections in Bangui on December 30, 2015
Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Two former premiers were neck-and-neck Tuesday in vote-counting for the Central African Republic's presidency as the government dismissed a call for the two-round election to be stopped.
With 53 percent of the votes in the first round counted, Anicet Georges Dologuele was narrowly ahead of fellow ex-prime minister Faustin Archange Touadera, the National Election Authority (ANE) said.
The December 30 elections for the presidency and 105-seat parliament are seen as key to stabilising the country after three years of fierce sectarian conflict.
Partial results from the first round began to be published on Saturday, and a runoff ballot is scheduled for January 31.
Earlier Tuesday, the government brushed aside demands to stop the election process after a communique, issued in the name of 20 out of the 30 presidential candidates, lashed the first round as a "masquerade" stained by irregularities and intimidation.
"There is no question... of halting the electoral process under way," Minister of Territorial Administration Modibo Bachir Walidou told reporters in the capital, Bangui.
Prime Minister Mahamat Kamoun also called on candidates to "respect (their) commitment to the higher interests of the nation."
"The transitional authority and the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of Central African States, France, the United States and China have all made considerable efforts to make sure these elections are free, democratic and credible," Kamoun said.
He called on Central Africans to show "calm, restraint, vigilance and not to give way to manipulation."
"For the moment, what we can say is that these elections went well," he added.
- Dissenters backtrack -
On Tuesday, some of the signatories broke rank to say they had been wrongly included in the list of dissenters.
"I was neither present at the press conference nor did I sign the document calling for a halt to the electoral process," said Jean Willybiro Sacko, whose name appeared on Monday's statement.
Karim Meckassoua, a co-signatory to the text and seen as a front-runner before the polls, also backtracked, saying he did not want the process scrapped but wanted cases of fraud to be filed in the constitutional court.
Meckassoua said votes attributed to him in constituencies which he considered his strongholds were very low.
Early counting had put Touadera -- a 58-year-old former maths professor who was prime minister under longtime president Francois Bozize -- in the lead. He had been considered an outsider in the field.
The new partial results, published on Tuesday, give Dologuele, who is backed by Bozize's party, with 179,236 votes, and Touadara, running as an independent, with 178,483 votes.
In third place was Desire Kolingba, the son of a former president, with 76,109.
Ex-premier Martin Ziguele, who had been considered a frontrunner and the favourite of former colonial power France, was trailing in fourth with 70,883 votes.
Fifth-placed Jean-Serge Bokassa, the 43-year-old son of the self-proclaimed emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled the country from 1966 to 1979, had 70,687 votes.
One of the world's poorest countries, with a history of coups and rebellions since its 1960 independence from France, Central African Republic was plunged into sectarian bloodshed in 2013 after Bozize was ousted by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, bringing Michel Djotodia to power -- the country's first Muslim president.
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.