- Associated Press - Saturday, February 13, 2016

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) - Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers fanned out across Central African Republic on Saturday, delivering voting materials to polling stations and stepping up security ahead of a historic presidential runoff election.

Voters are choosing Sunday between two former prime ministers who have campaigned on promises of unifying the country torn apart by more than two years of sectarian violence between Muslim and Christian communities.

Bangui is a city awash in weapons, and many have feared that tensions around the vote could re-ignite rivalries between the militias still living among civilians in the capital.

Lt. Gen. Balla Keita, force commander of the U.N. mission known as MINUSCA, said he was confident the vote would be peaceful. At least 2,000 peacekeepers and police are on hand in the capital, Bangui, while 8,000 others are patrolling in the provinces.

“Right now we are comfortable with the level of securitization,” he said. “We are optimistic that everything will go well with the elections. But we know maybe there still could be issues and that with elections there could be sore losers.”

On Saturday, peacekeepers helped deliver materials to a polling station in the predominantly Muslim enclave of PK5, where only three months earlier residents could not leave because Christian militia fighters had encircled the periphery in an attempt to thwart attacks on Christian neighborhoods.

Now merchants sit outside, selling fabrics and other wares, while young men carry high stacks of hard-boiled eggs for sale in the streets. Jasmin Menengamokobou, a 29-year-old Christian who has long lived in PK5, said residents of the beleaguered neighborhood are eagerly awaiting Sunday’s election.

“We are ready to vote and we want peace to return to the country,” he said as he stuffed foam mattress cushions into bright blue and yellow velour covers at the shop where he works. “Everyone has lost family during this crisis but if we focus on this we will never have peace.”

Many credit the recent peace to the November visit of Pope Francis, who not only met with Christian leaders but also ventured in his open-air vehicle to the mosque where many have sought refuge since tensions exploded in late 2013. Whether these advances hold, though, is now largely dependent on the success of Sunday’s historic vote.

Front-runner Anicet Georges Dologuele received about 24 percent in the first round and also was endorsed by the third-place finisher. However, Faustin Archange Touadera has strong grassroots support after placing second in the December ballot. Both candidates are former prime ministers and both are Christian. The country is currently being led by a transitional government formed two years ago, and the current president is barred from running.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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