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Central African Republic Holds Vote; Turnout Appears High

By Jean-Magloire Issa
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A15

BANGUI, Central African Republic, March 13 -- Voters in the Central African Republic turned out in large numbers on Sunday for presidential and parliamentary elections after two years of military rule in their diamond-rich but impoverished country.

Long lines of voters waiting under a baking sun snaked outside polling stations throughout the day in Bangui, the dilapidated capital.

Voting operations went generally smoothly but were slow, in the first presidential elections since rebels seized the capital two years ago and installed Francois Bozize, a former army general, as president. Bozize is seen as the favorite among 11 candidates.

"This is democracy taking hold in the country, and I have given my contribution to it. I am proud of this," Bozize said after casting his ballot in Bangui.

The landlocked country of 3.9 million has endured long periods of dictatorship since independence from France in 1960. There have been 11 coup attempts and mutinies in the past decade. The country is deeply impoverished, with high rates of inflation and joblessness.

People in the capital said they wanted their country to break with its violent past.

"This vote is important to put an end to the coups d'etat. I want peace," said Herve Bamina, 24, a mechanic.

Bozize's main challenger is a former military ruler, Andre Kolingba, who was met by thousands of supporters blowing whistles and honking horns when he returned from exile in France last month to participate in the elections.

Kolingba took power as army chief in 1981 and banned political parties before reinstating a multi-party system in 1991. He moved to France after losing 1993 polls to Ange-Felixe Patasse, the man Bozize toppled two years ago. Patasse was barred from the election.

Some opposition groups have already alleged fraud in a campaign that officially kicked off only two weeks ago, accusing Bozize's camp of buying voting cards from people. The opposition has also accused security forces of intimidating candidates.

Central Africans also voted for candidates for parliament. More than 700 candidates, including 152 women, were competing for 105 seats.

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