Bangui, Central African Republic: Election officials began counting ballots on Sunday after the Central African Republic voted in delayed legislative elections and a presidential run-off it hopes will bring peace after the worst sectarian violence since independence in 1960.
The nation, dogged by coups, violence and misrule since winning independence from France, could take a step towards rebirth if the polls and their aftermath go smoothly.
"For the first time we have a true opportunity to turn our backs on war," said Paterne, a voter in his 40s, as he queued at a polling station in the capital Bangui.
The elections apparently passed off peacefully, with security tight as UN peacekeepers and French soldiers helped to patrol areas where tensions remain high.
Vote counting began on Sunday evening in school classrooms where election officials used chalk to tally totals, according to an AFP reporter.
The first official results may not be known for several days.
The two men in the close presidential race are both former prime ministers who have campaigned on promises to restore security and boost the economy in the mineral-rich but dirt-poor country.
Anicet Georges Dologuele, a 58-year-old former central banker known as "Mr Clean" for his efforts to bring transparency to murky public finances, won the first round on December 30, taking 23.78 percent of the vote.
He faced Faustin Archange Touadera, a former maths professor, in the run-off. Also 58, Touadera was standing as an independent and surprised everyone by coming second in the first round with 19.4 percent.
Touadera's popularity stems from a measure he introduced as prime minister paying government salaries directly into bank accounts, ending decades of pay arrears and unpaid wages.
'Act of Love'
Dologuele wished voters a happy Valentine's Day as he cast his ballot in Bangui.
"Valentine's is a celebration of love, and I'd like Central Africans to see voting today as an act of love for their country."
Touadera, speaking to voters near the working-class neighbourhood of Boy Rabe, pitched himself as the people's candidate.
"I am confident of the outcome of the vote," he told supporters who were already addressing him as "president".
Central Africans also voted in a re-run of the last legislative election, also held on December 30 that was later annulled over numerous irregularities.
A total of 1,800 candidates were competing for 105 seats in the National Assembly.
Queues in the capital were noticeably thinner than in December, with barely half of eligible voters having cast their ballots less than two hours before polling stations were due to close at 1500 GMT.
Some polls did not close until an hour later, having opened late in the morning.
Voters in some parts of Bangui and the provinces complained of being turned away because their names were not on the list or because they were not carrying proof of identity.
The race for the presidency is expected to be tight.
Dologuele has the backing of the candidate who came third in the first round while Touadera has the support of 22 other candidates who ran in December.
CAR's most recent episode of bloodletting was sparked by the March 2013 ousting of long-serving president Francois Bozize, a Christian, by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance.
The coup sparked a series of revenge attacks involving Muslim forces and Christian vigilante groups known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) militias.
Thousands were slaughtered in the spiral of atrocities that drove about a tenth of the population of 4.8 million to flee their homes.
Both Dologuele and Touadera are Christians.
Turnout was high in December's elections, despite huge logistical problems and grinding poverty. Some 1.3 million valid ballots were cast in a country with nearly two million registered voters.
The elections came after 93 percent of voters backed a constitutional referendum that cleared the way for the vote.
It also followed Pope Francis's groundbreaking trip in November his first to a war zone.
His impassioned plea for peace and reconciliation has been taken up by candidates, political parties and religious leaders.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault welcomed Sunday's polls as "decisive progress" and called on "all political sides to await calmly the publication of results."...