By Joe Bavier
BANGUI (Reuters) - Central Africans cast their ballots on Sunday in an election meant to restore democratic rule, determined to turn the page on years of bloodshed that has killed thousands and split the impoverished nation along religious and ethnic lines.
One of the world's most chronically unstable countries, Central African Republic was pitched into the worst crisis in its history in early 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters toppled President Francois Bozize.
Christian militias responded to Seleka abuses by attacking the Muslim minority community. One in five Central Africans has fled, either internally or abroad, to escape the violence.
Two ex-prime ministers, Faustin-Archange Touadera and Anicet-Georges Dologuele, were contesting a presidential run-off that will determine who will be charged with the enormous challenge of restoring peace and reuniting the nation.
Touadera has portrayed himself as an anti-corruption stalwart, while Dologuele pledges to revive the economy and draw in investors hesitant until now to exploit significant gold, diamond and uranium deposits.
Authorities were also trying to re-run a first round of legislative polls which were canceled over irregularities.
In Bangui's PK5 neighborhood, the capital's principal Muslim enclave following a campaign of ethnic cleansing, some voters arrived before dawn to queue at the main polling center.
Alima Zeinabou Shaibou, 32, who like most Muslims in the southwest has been forced to leave her home, crossed the road from the mosque where she now lives with her five children to be among the first voters. "I want there to be a change. I want Christians and Muslims to live together as before," she said.
The voting center in PK5 witnessed violent attacks by local militia during a December constitutional referendum. And though the situation has remained largely calm during the election period, Sunday's vote was held under heavy security.
Armed soldiers from MINUSCA, the country's 11,000-strong U.N. mission, guarded polling stations while attack helicopters circled in the skies over Bangui. Armored vehicles from a 900-soldier French military contingent patrolled the streets.
"AN ACT OF LOVE"
Polls generally opened on time at 6 a.m. (0500 GMT) in Bangui, a marked improvement on a Dec. 30 first round of voting, when ballot materials arrived late or not at all in many areas. Polls were due to close at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
"I have noticed less turnout today than for the first round. But I'm very pleased that the second round is better organized," said former Senegalese prime minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye, heading the African Union's elections observer mission.
The first round turnout of nearly 80 percent was largely viewed as a popular rejection of the violence, which has left the northeast under the control of Muslim rebels while Christian militias roam the southwest.
Both Dologuele, a banker, and trained mathematics professor Touadera have made the restoration of peace and security the centerpiece of their campaigns. Both candidates are Christians.
"We hope that the people will vote massively for my candidacy, because it is a candidacy of unity," Touadera told reporters after voting. "We think they have heard the message."
"I wish a happy Valentine's Day to everyone," Dologuele told journalists. "I would like Central Africans to consider (voting today) an act of love for their country."
Expectations were running high in a nation where nearly every household has been affected by a crisis which has in some cases pitted long-standing neighbors against one another.
While the polls should reinstate democracy after three years of unpopular interim administrations, analysts warn the election of a new government is only the first step in a long process.
Whoever wins the presidency will face the daunting tasks of extending state authority outside the capital, rebuilding the army, jumpstarting a moribund economy and re-establishing a semblance of security across a nation awash with guns.
"It's cheaper to buy a grenade in Bangui than it is to buy a can of Coke. That's how bad it is here," said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
(Additional reporting by Leger Serge Kokpakpa and Crispin Dembassa-Kette; Editing by Mark Heinrich)