The Central African Republic's top court on Thursday rejected ex-president Francois Bozize's candidacy in forthcoming elections, boosting Faustin-Archange Touadera's bid for a second term at the helm of the deeply troubled nation.
The ruling was handed down by the Constitutional Court, which barred Bozize on the grounds that he was being sought for alleged murder and torture and was under UN sanctions.
It also rejected four other bids for the December 27 vote, leaving a field of 17 candidates now dominated by Touadera.
A former five-star general, Bozize, 74, has played a major part in CAR's decades-long troubles, and some have feared he could try to stage a violent comeback.
He seized power in 2003 before being overthrown a decade later by the Seleka, a rebel coalition drawn largely from the Muslim minority.
The 2013 coup sparked brutal violence between the Seleka and so-called "anti-Balaka" self-defence forces, mainly Christian and animist.
France intervened militarily in its former colony to push out the Seleka, winding down the operation after Touadera was elected in 2016 following a transition.
After spending years in exile, Bozize slipped back into the CAR in late 2019 and filed his candidacy in July.
- Court ruling -
But the Constitutional Court on Thursday said it would not accept his bid, "given that the candidate is the target of an international arrest warrant" filed by the CAR in 2014 "for murder, arbitrary arrest, sequestration, arbitrary detention and torture."
It also noted UN measures against Bozize, which meant that he failed to meet "criteria of sound morality in the electoral code."
The United Nations placed Bozize on its sanctions list in 2014, freezing any assets he held abroad and banning him from travel, on the grounds that while in exile he had been supporting militia groups guilty of "war crimes and crimes against humanity."
Bozize would not issue an immediate reaction to the court's ruling, said his campaign manager Christian Guenebem, who insisted the arrest warrant and the UN sanctions "do not constitute convictions and he continues to have presumption of innocence."
Aid workers said the former president was near Kaga Bandoro in the centre of the country when the court's decision was announced.
He was on the territory of a militia chief who was one of his supporters, they said.
Bozize retains a large following in the CAR, especially among the Gbaya ethnic group, the country's largest, and has many supporters in the army.
Many people in the country, as well as humanitarian experts and diplomats, have feared that he may try to force his way back into power although others discount this.
"It would be a pretty bad idea to try something before the elections, as he would get the entire international community on his back," said Thierry Vircoulon, central African director at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) think tank.
- Touadera clear favourite -
Touadera, 63, has been widely criticised for failing to root out corruption, but the barring of Bozize means he is now the clear frontrunner in the elections.
The other candidates include former prime ministers Anicet Georges Dologuele and Martin Ziguele, as well as Catherine Samba-Panza, who was president during the CAR's 2014-16 transition, but none has much support outside their local strongholds.
Touadera was elected in February 2016 with two-thirds of the vote.
But he struggled to stem vicious intercommunal strife in a country where militia groups control most of the territory.
A peace accord signed in February 2019 between the government and 14 armed groups has led to a lower level of violence, although it remains entrenched.
Thousands of people have died, and nearly a quarter of the population of 4.7 million have fled their homes.
The United Nations has deployed one of its biggest peacekeeping forces in CAR -- a mission with a mandate for 11,650 troops.