Between two and five people have been killed as heavy gunfire broke out in a Muslim district of Bangui, capital of Central African Republic (CAR), while the country held a referendum on a new constitution. As people went to the polls on 13 December to cast their vote on the draft constitution, UN peacekeepers from the 11,000-strong MINUSCA mission came under fire in the Muslim district known as PK5.
The peacekeepers said fighters armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades launched repeated attacks in a bid to disrupt votes, Reuters reported. Medecins Sans Frontieres said at least 23 people with gun and grenade wounds were admitted to hospitals. At least two UN members are believed to have been wounded in the clashes.
Other incidents were reported in other parts of the country. There were repeated efforts to derail polling both in Bangui as well as in Kaga-Bandoro, a town in northern CAR.
PK5, also known as Kilometre 5, was inhabited by thousands of Muslims, most of whom fled their homes following the eruption of the ongoing crisis in 2013 and the installation of Christian militias in the district. Clashes in PK5 are the latest episode of violence in CAR, where a two-year-long conflict has resulted in the death and displacement of thousands.
The country descended into chaos in 2013 after former leader Francois Bozize was overthrown during a coup and replaced by Michel Djotodia. As a result of the political unrest, Muslim Seleka and Christian anti-Balaka militias engaged in tit-for-tat violence prompting Djotodia to resign in January 2014, as he was accused of being unable to halt the unrest.
Due to the prolonged violence that often targets civilians, interim president Catherine Samba-Panza – deemed as politically neutral – postponed the presidential and parliamentary election, originally scheduled for October, to 27 December. Bozize tried to run for the upcoming election but his candidacy was rejected by the constitutional court.
The referendum on the draft constitution was considered crucial to pave the way for a peaceful election in December. The new document would limit presidential powers, create a senate and establish a Special Criminal Court for serious crimes, most of which have been blamed on militant groups.
The results of the referendum are expected later on this week. However, both Seleka and anti-Balaka factions said they were against the referendum. A sect of the Seleka rebels said in a statement the country was not ready to hold an election and called for a new transitional government and the cancellation of both the referendum and presidential election.
CAR citizens already went to the polls in 2004 when they voted on a new constitution that changed the form of government from semi-presidential to presidential and limited presidential terms to two.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis visited CAR and urged Muslims and Christians to cease violence and live as "brothers and sisters". The pontiff made the comment days after at least 100 Muslims were killed.