Heavy fighting has broken out in a Muslim district of Bangui, Central African Republic's capital, during a constitutional referendum aimed at ending years of bloody sectarian strife across the country.
Machine-gun fire and explosions of rocket propelled grenades could be heard as voters went to the polls to cast their ballots Sunday in a constitutional referendum seen as a means of restoring stability in the country.
The sporadic violence left at least two people dead after gunmen opened fire in the PK5 neighborhood of Bangui, with some 13 people shot and injured. The fighthing forced voting stations to close.
A group of Muslims from the district protested outside MINUSCA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) headquarters, demanding the right to vote.
The fighting broke out in the PK5 neighborhood soon after UN peace keepers were deployed to protect poll workers and residents who had been prevented from casting their votes.
A Red Cross staffer told the AFP news agency that six people had been hurt in the fighting.
Sunday's ballot was seen as a test ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on December 27 which is hoped will end nearly two years of conflict between mainly Muslim and mainly Christian militias.
Earlier in the day five people were hurt, two of them seriously, in clashes in the volatile Muslim-majority district.
In the district of Gobongo, a Christian “anti-Balaka” militia stronghold, another three people were injured amid gunfire and grenade blasts, a security source said.
Several other incidents were also reported in the north and east of the country, an unnamed source in the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSCA, said.
Should Sunday's referendum pass, the new constitution would usher in the country's sixth republic since independence from France in 1960. The change would also mark the 13th political regime change in as many years, underlining the chronic instability within the Central African Republic.
The projected constitution would limit the presidency to two terms and introduce a senate as the primary legislative body.
It would also block members of the interim government from running in the legislative and presidential elections slated for the end of December.
The landlocked African country has witnessed nearly one-third of its 4.7 million population displaced due to violence between Christian and Muslim militias.
In 2013, Seleka - a coalition of Muslim rebel groups - seized the capital and overthrew Francois Bozize, the country's Christian president, following a failed power-sharing deal.
The National Election Authority - the republic's official electoral body - sought to reassure voters over the referendum, despite issues with the distribution of voting cards and only 15,000 copies of the proposed constitution having been printed.
'A step forward'
The UN hailed the referendum as a step forward for the conflict-stricken country, noting that it would provide the opportunity for a "stable future."
"The referendum is a significant milestone towards the end of the transition in the Central African Republic, which will lay new foundations for a stable future for the country and its people," said a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The spokesperson said that Ban urged "all national stakeholders to ensure that the referendum is conducted in a peaceful and credible manner," adding that the UN supports the transitional authorities.
jlw/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)