The Central African Republic will vote in a second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday under high security after a sharp increase in rebel violence around the polls in December.
Insurgents besieged the capital Bangui in January, suffocating food supplies, forcing more than 200,000 people out of their homes and raising concerns about the country slipping back into the kind of sectarian conflict that has killed thousands over the past decade.
President Faustin Archange Touadéra won re-election but rebels, who the UN says are supported by former President François Bozizé, tried to take control amid allegations of irregularities in the votes.
Sunday’s ballots are for legislative elections, including voting in 49 constituencies and the first ballot in 69 districts where violence prevented the vote from taking place in December.
The country’s army, supported by Russian and Rwandan forces and with the help of UN peacekeepers, has steadily taken back a number of rebel strongholds since its first offensive.
“We have a much stronger presence of defense and security forces on the ground to secure the election,” said Abdoul-Aziz Fall, spokesman for the country’s UN peacekeeping mission, called MINUSCA.
Government officials are optimistic that the vote will be peaceful, pointing to military victories and the unblocking of a 580 km (360 km) corridor that provides much-needed supplies from Cameroon to Bangui.
The situation is far from stable in the gold- and diamond-rich nation with 4.7 million people who have had repeated outbreaks of violence since Bozizé’s ouster in 2013.
The UN has reported a sharp increase in human rights abuses by armed groups and security forces since December.
It has accused rebels of abducting civilians, shooting at crowds and burning down polling stations. It says that state agents have tortured and killed civilians.
“Impunity can drive further violations and encourage perpetrators,” said Ravinda Shamdasani, the UN’s human rights representative. “It is very important that the government sends a clear message that such violations will not be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, Aboubakar Ali Siddick, a spokesman for a coalition of rebel groups called the Coalition of Patriots for Change, denied that the army had made significant progress and dismissed Sunday’s vote as “a masquerade”.