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Voters head to polls in delayed C. African Republic elections

Voters in the Central African Republic are casting their ballots in presidential and parliamentary elections. The poll aims to restore democratic rule to a country wracked by years of sectarian bloodshed.

Roughly 2 million people were eligible to

vote on Wednesday

at more than 500 polling stations in the Central African Republic in an election that has been delayed several times, with the latest date

also postponed

after logistical problems emerged.

Queues formed at several polling stations in the capital, Bangui. The booths failed to open at 0600 UTC/GMT as scheduled, owing to the late arrival of ballot papers and voters' lists.

Voters will be choosing between 30 candidates, including two former prime ministers, to find a replacement for transitional leader Catherine Samba-Panza who, as a member of the interim government, is forbidden by the country's new constitution from running as candidate.

Predictions as to the outcome are difficult, as there have been no opinion polls and there is no incumbent.

Long instability

Some 11,000 UN peacekeepers have been tasked with ensuring that voting takes place peacefully after

a constitutional referendum

earlier this month was marred by violence.

CAR, a majority Christian country, has been ravaged by political instability and violence ever since it obtained its independence from France in 1960.

The latest bout of unrest saw a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, the Seleka, depose long-serving Christian President Francois Bozize in March 2013 and replace him with Muslim leader Michel Djotodia.

Although Djotodia stepped down in January 2014, allowing the installation of a transitional government under Samba-Panza, Christian "anti-balaka" militias began to launch reprisal attacks on Muslims, leading to a cycle of sectarian violence that killed thousands and made hundreds of thousands more homeless.

A new government will face the challenge of disarming rival militias, smoothing over the sectarian divide and rehabilitating a long-faltering economy largely reliant on the country's mineral resources, including uranium, gold and diamonds.

Election results are expected within two weeks. If no presidential candidate wins a clear majority, there will be a runoff vote on January 31.

tj/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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