Violence Marks C.A.R. Constitution Vote

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Gunfire, a grenade explosion and threats of violence in Central African Republic on Sunday prevented many from voting in a constitutional referendum seen as a test of whether national elections can take place later this month.

Sunday's vote comes ahead of presidential and legislative elections on Dec. 27 that already have been delayed several times. Concerns about security and voter turnout remain high, even though a visit by Pope Francis two weeks ago brought a momentary lull in violence between Christian and Muslim militias.

"It's since last night that these extremists have taken us hostage. They have distributed ammunitions to their elements to use all day Sunday to prevent the vote," said Ousmane Abakar, a Muslim community leader in the PK5 neighborhood in the capital, Bangui, where gunshots were heard beginning early in the morning.

Residents in the northern Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui said a grenade exploded near a voting center, injuring three people. In Kaga Bandoro in the country's north, an armed group threatened to kill people who went to vote.

The referendum for 2 million registered voters at more than 5,500 stations continued elsewhere, though there were reports of missing voter cards.

If approved by voters, the new constitution will create a Senate and safeguard for freedom of worship and religious freedoms.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a peaceful and credible vote. "The referendum is a significant milestone towards the end of the transition in the Central African Republic which will lay new foundations for a stable future for the country and its people," he said in a statement.

Central African Republic descended into conflict in 2013 when Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president. That ushered in a brutal reign in which Muslims committed atrocities. When the rebel leader left power the following year, a swift and horrific backlash against Muslim civilians followed in which Muslims were killed in the streets and sectarian violence has continued.

(KA)