A day late, violence-hit Bangui district votes in C.Africa referendum

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Peacekeepers massed around a flashpoint district of the Central African Republic capital Bangui on Monday to enable people to vote safely a day after violence prevented them from casting ballots in a key referendum.

Five people were killed in clashes Sunday in the Muslim-majority PK-5 district, heightening fears over whether long-delated elections can go ahead on December 27.

Another 20 people were wounded, several seriously, in fighting involving rocket launchers and machine guns, the Red Cross said Monday.

UN peacekeepers and French soldiers deployed around the PK-5 district, and a military helicopter circled overhead, to allow its voters to complete polling in a constitutional referendum aimed at ending Christian-Muslim sectarian strife.

The unrest erupted after veteran leader Francois Bozize, a Christian, was ousted by rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka force in March 2013, triggering a wave of tit-for-tat violence with Christian militias known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete).

Tensions remain high in the impoverished country but many voters taking part in the referendum expressed a desire for peace.

Turnout was said to be strong and no new violence was reported Monday in the PK-5 district, a bustling trading hub in Bangui.

Officials at one polling station in the area reported a massive "Yes" vote in favour of a new constitution as counting began.

"We don't really know what's in this constitution... but above all, we're voting for peace," said one voter who gave his name as Njadder.

The Muslim community in PK-5 is split between a majority who favour the electoral process and those opposed, now labelled the "enemies of peace".

"We agree to live together with the Christians. We want to live in peace but we have been taken hostage" by armed groups, said Hassan Brassoul Moussa, a spokesman for Muslim youth in PK-5.

He demanded the arrest of "criminals who want to sow chaos amongst us" and Abdoulaye Hissene, a former Seleka "general" accused of orchestrating Sunday's violence, came in for special vitriol.

"This has to stop," said a young vendor, Mustapha Younous, as people cheered around him. "If Abdoulaye Hissene (and associates) want to do politics they can do it somewhere else. We are businessmen and we want to do business!"

Makeup balloting was also held elsewhere in the troubled former French colony where armed men interfered with Sunday's polling, electoral authorities said.

An unnamed source in the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA, sent in to quell fighting that has forced 10 percent of the population to flee their homes since the 2013 coup, reported scattered violence in the north and east of the landlocked country.

Some supporters of the mainly Christian militia also opposed the vote, mostly backers of ousted president Bozize, whose candidacy for the upcoming presidential election has been rejected by the constitutional court.

- 'Historic step' -

Late Sunday, UN special envoy Parfait Onanga-Anyanga praised voters for their "courage", saying they overcame "fears and threats" to cast their ballots.

"The Central Africans took a historic step in their march towards greater democracy," he told reporters.

The vote was seen as a test run for presidential and parliamentary elections set for December 27 to end the more than two years of conflict between the Muslim and Christian militias.

With less than two weeks to go until the first round, the UN's peacekeeping chief on Monday called for swift action against anyone who sought to derail the country's political transition.

"Efforts to undermine yesterday's constitutional referendum demonstrate that there are actors that remain determined to derail the political process in the Central African Republic," Herve Ladsous, the UN under-secretary general for peacekeeping, told the Security Council.

The country's proposed new constitution would limit presidential tenure to two terms, fight institutional corruption and rein in the armed militias.

If adopted, it would usher in the sixth republic since independence from France in 1960 and mark the 13th political regime in a country notorious for its chronic instability.

The referendum results are expected in the next two days.