By Antoine Rolland
BANGUI (Reuters) - Voters in Central African Republic go to the polls on Sunday for presidential and legislative elections being held under a cloud of violence as the government tries to hold off a rebel advance.
Militias hostile to President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who is seeking a second term, have stepped up attacks since the constitutional court rejected several candidacies, including that of former President Francois Bozize, earlier this month.
The crisis has left many in the diamond and gold-rich nation of 4.7 million exhausted while stirring fears of a return to the worst violence of its recent past, which includes five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960.
"For the last three days, I have been keeping my children close by my side," said Israel Malongou, an entrepreneur in the capital Bangui. "I want the elections to be over, whoever wins, so that we can get back to our lives."
Touadera was first elected in 2016 following a rebellion three years earlier that ousted Bozize. He has struggled to wrest control of vast swathes of the country from armed militias.
Successive waves of violence since 2013 have killed thousands and forced over a million from their homes.
Touadera is considered the favourite in the field of 17 candidates. His main challenger is Anicet Georges Dologuele, a former prime minister who finished runner-up in 2016 and is supported by Bozize. The election will go to a second round if no candidate receives over 50% of the vote.
On the campaign trail, Touadera has touted advances rebuilding state institutions and rejected opposition calls to delay the election.
"There is no institutional crisis. We must simply go on with the election," he said last week.
Touadera and the United Nations, which has over 12,800 uniformed peacekeepers in CAR, have accused Bozize of being behind the rebel offensive, which briefly seized the country's fourth largest city last week and has led to a wave of desertions from the army.
Bozize's candidacy was rejected because he faces an arrest warrant and U.N. sanctions for allegedly ordering assassinations and torture while president.
Bozize has denied those charges and his party has said he has nothing to do with the latest rebel offensive.
Touadera's international security partners have responded to the latest violence by sending additional troops and equipment, including 300 Russian military instructors and 300 Rwandan peacekeepers.
(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)