Voting for peace under rocket fire in Bangui's Muslim quarter

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Eager to cast their votes in a constitutional referendum aimed at ending years of violence in the Central African Republic, hundreds of people were waiting in line at a school yard when the sound of weapons started ringing out.

Opponents of the crucial vote did all they could to terrify residents of PK5, the flashpoint Muslim district of the capital Bangui, but despite having to duck for cover, voters said they were determined to cast their ballots.

Sunday was Central Africans' day to decide whether they backed a proposed constitution that would limit presidential tenure to two terms, fight corruption and crimp the power of armed militias, blamed for years of chaos and terror.

It was seen a test run for presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place December 27 to end more than two years of conflict between Muslim and Christian militias.

But in a sign that tensions remain high, the sudden sound of gunfire sent hundreds of men, women and children running for their lives through the corridors and classrooms of PK5's decrepit Baya Dombia school, where voting was taking place.

They threw themselves on the floor in panic as the din of rocket, Kalashnikov and heavy machine-gun fire followed.

- 'We're going to vote!' -

Just 20 metres (yards) from the packed courtyard, a rocket launched from a nearby street tore down a palm tree, prompting UN peacekeepers to move in to protect residents.

In a show of defiance, young Muslim residents rose up from cover, waving their fists in the air, shouting: "We're going to vote!"

Moments later, they hid again from view as more bullets flew past.

Earlier Sunday, even though neither voting boxes nor ballots were ready in time for referendum day, dozens of young people marched to the UN MINUSCA peacekeeping force's headquarters, holding posters that read "Yes" and demanding that voting offices open in the restive PK5 district.

Elsewhere in the capital, voters said they would not be cowed by the violence and were determined to make their voices heard.

"We have suffered too much. Those who are shooting are criminals who want chaos, but we can't take it any more. We are Central Africans too, and we want peace!" cried Mahamat Youssouf, a tradesman.

"They want to intimidate us, but we won't let them!" added a young voter named Abakar, smiling broadly. "I want to vote, if I must die to vote that's OK."

- 'Enemies of peace' -

Clashes had earlier broken out just a few hundred metres (yards) away, near another school where voting was also supposed to take place.

The fighting pitted Muslim pro-referendum groups against supporters of the majority Muslim Seleka force that in 2013 ousted longtime president Francois Bozize, a Christian.

At least two Muslim civilians were killed and a dozen others were wounded in violence in PK5 alone on Sunday.

PK5 residents pointed the finger of blame at "the enemies of peace, Haroun Gaye's men".

They were referring to the Seleka rebellion's most radical faction, which still holds parts of the east and north of the country, where the vote was also marred by violence Sunday.

The group, which had repeatedly warned it block the referendum, had until recently controlled PK5.

But neighbourhood residents, many of them tradesmen, turned against the faction as they watched their income shrink and endless cycles of violence engulf their lives.

"These groups want to derail the electoral process" in order to continue trafficking in diamonds, gold and other high-value resources, without facing justice over a plethora of abuses against civilians in recent years, a security source in Bangui said.

This time, their bid to stop voters from going to the polls failed. Minutes after rocket fire shook PK5, with gunshots still ringing out, voters got up and stood back in line.

They voted despite the threats and the fear.

An old man smiled. "We're used to it."

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