BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Two former prime ministers are running neck-and-neck in presidential elections to end years of violence pitting Muslims against Christians in the Central African Republic, with nearly two-thirds of votes counted Saturday.
Voters went to the polls on Wednesday in hopes of ending the conflict that erupted when a largely Muslim rebel alliance overthrew a Christian president in 2013, provoking a horrific backlash from Christian militias. Thousands have died and nearly 1 million people — a fifth of the population — have been forced from their homes.
The National Electoral Authority announced results with 64 percent of the votes counted: Faustin Archange Touadera with 30,999 ballots to 28,162 for banker Anicet Georges Dologuele. Both men are Christian, like 80 percent of the population.
In third place with 25,057 is Desire Zanga Bilal Kolingba, son of coup leader Andre-Dieudonne Kolingba, who overthrew an elected president and ruled from 1981 to 1993. His son converted to Islam.
Muslims are 15 percent of the 4.8 million population.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent, the two front-runners will compete in a second round.
Saturday's results are from Bangui, the capital. Electoral Authority spokesman Julius Rufin Ngoadebaba said results from elsewhere, including refugees in Cameroon, should be available Sunday afternoon.
Kolingba said the elections' credibility had been undermined by irregularities, including the stealing of ballot boxes, and he warned against the theft of his "certain victory."
The United Nations said "armed elements" attacked peacekeepers as they loaded election materials in Bangui wounding three police officers.
The election for a president and legislators by 1.8 million registered voters comes nearly a month after Pope Francis visited the country, calling for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.
A country that should be rich from deposits of uranium, oil, gold and diamonds as well as rich arable land and forests is among the 10 poorest in the world because of conflicts at times fueled by neighbors Chad and Sudan.