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BANGUI (Reuters) - Candidates for weekend elections in Central African Republic wrapped up campaigning on Friday with promises to put an end to years of religious and ethnic bloodshed in the impoverished nation.
Voters will cast their ballots on Sunday in a presidential run-off between former prime ministers Anicet-Georges Dologuele and Faustin-Archange Touadera and vote in the re-run of a first round legislative poll which was canceled over irregularities.
Central African Republic has remained one of the world's most unstable nations since gaining independence from France more than five decades ago. Investors have shied away from its gold, diamonds and uranium amid regular coups and rebellions.
"At a certain moment the state had collapsed. All the ingredients that make up a state had fallen away," said Bangui's influential Catholic archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga.
The latest crisis erupted in early 2013 when Seleka rebels drawn mainly from the Muslim minority toppled President Francois Bozize, provoking deadly reprisals by Christian militia fighters.
Thousands have died in the violence. And one in five Central Africans has fled either abroad or internally, including most Muslims in the southwest, who were targeted by a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The themes of peace and reconciliation have been at the center of both presidential candidates' campaigns.
On the edge of the capital Bangui's PK5 Muslim enclave, dozens of trucks and motorcycles carrying cheering Touadera supports wound through dusty streets lined with roofless, looted homes and past checkpoints manned by armed U.N. soldiers.
"Of course, we've organized election. But that's only one element ... in emerging from this crisis," Touadera, a mathematics professor, said in a televised debate later of Friday.
"There are still Central African brothers with weapons ... Right after these elections, we must open dialogue with them so that (disarmament) is automatically begun," he said.
The election period, which began with a constitutional referendum mid-December, has remained relatively peaceful. And turnout of nearly 80 percent for the first round of elections was widely viewed as an indication of the people's desire to turn the page on the years of violence.
"It's changing. I've seen the change," said Coretta Gonda, 25, who lost her aunt and younger brother to the fighting and had her home looted. "God taught us to forgive. I'm ready to forgive."
Gonda was among thousands who gathered in the national football stadium on Friday for a final rally organized by Dologuele, a banker who has served in regional financial institutions.
"The country has fallen. We must build it back up again," he told a crowd of thousands of supporters. "All of you here can build it back up."
Both Dologuele and Touadera have close ties to deposed leader Bozize, who is the target of an international arrest warrant and has been accused by U.N. investigators of backing Christian militias.
Those links have raised concerns among some diplomats and U.N. officials. But Edouard Mathos Matandji, a resident of the traditional Bozize stronghold of Boy-Rabe in Bangui, has faith that the country is on the verge of a turn-around.
"It's the politicians who have abused the Central African people ... We're tired of that," said the 25-year-old Touadera supporter. "We're not in the past. This is the present. The past is the past."
Additional reporting by Crispin Dembassa-Kette and Leger Serge Kokpakpa; Editing by Andrew Heavens