, Bangui, Dec 13 – The Central African Republic began voting Sunday in a referendum aimed at ending the nation’s bloody sectarian strife.
In the capital Bangui, voting began late in several districts and had yet to begin in the volatile Muslim-majority PK5 district, where gunfire broke out overnight, a UN peacekeeping source said.
Authorities were setting up an alternative polling station after the unrest forced the closure of a school where voting had been set to take place.
After more than two years of fighting that forced 10 percent of the population to flee the country, Sunday’s vote on a new constitution is seen as a test run for presidential and parliamentary polls in two weeks.
But despite the presence of 11,000 UN and French peacekeepers, part of the impoverished country remains out of bounds, under the control of either rebel chieftains or bandits.
UN peacekeepers must escort convoys of trucks carrying voting slips that leave every day from Bangui for the interior, given the volatile situation in parts of the country.
The widespread chaos has hampered organisation of the ballot by the country’s interim authorities, with few election posters visible on the streets just 48 hours beforehand.
More significantly, only 15,000 copies of the new constitution have been printed, meaning that few voters are fully aware of its contents.
Almost two million Central Africans have registered to vote in a population of 4.8 million — spurring hopes the election will be the first step in a return to peace and normalcy.