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Uribe Poised to Win in Colombia

May 26, 2002

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Hard-line presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe appeared headed for victory Sunday in Colombia, where many are willing to endure a bloody war in order to crush a long-running insurgency.

With 86 percent of the votes counted, national election officials said Alvaro Uribe was leading with 53 percent, compared to 31 percent for former Interior Minister Horacio Serpa _ his closest challenger. That puts him within striking distance of winning a majority outright and avoiding a second-round runoff next month.

``Colombian democracy is very beautiful _ the people have a profound sense of democracy,″ Uribe, guarded by a phalanx of police and soldiers, said after voting in Bogota. He has pledged to crack down on leftist rebels, double the strength of the armed forces and seek wider U.S. military aid.

In the cities and villages perched on Andean mountains and deep in sweltering jungles, voters cast ballots, many believing that their country stood on the precipice of a wider war.

In Bogota’s centuries-old Plaza Bolivar, police sharpshooters scanned the crowd while other officers set up roadblocks and frisked pedestrians. Army tanks and troops patrolled in the fog-shrouded Andean mountains that loom over the city.

``We want a solution to the violence in this country. We cannot continue in this way,″ said Ramiro Contreras, a 41-year-old businessman who voted for Uribe because ``we know that he will hit the guerrillas hard.″

In Villavicencio, a provincial capital south of Bogota, 52-year-old German Villegas said he also voted for Uribe _ an independent candidate and Harvard-educated former state governor _ ``because we are sick of the war and of the guerrillas.″

But there was also rejection of Uribe’s calls for a bigger military, and of recruiting 1 million Colombian civilians to be an early warning system for the armed forces.

``He wants to arm everybody to the teeth,″ said Fanny Ramos, an unemployed accountant who voted for leftist candidate Luis Eduardo Garzon.

``The solution is to create employment and provide health care,″ Ramos said. The guerrillas would have nothing to protest against if things were better.″

However, both the Colombian and U.S. governments say the rebels, who finance themselves through drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, are terrorists who long ago abandoned idealistic motives for waging a 38-year war that kills some 3,500 people yearly, most of them civilians.

In the northern town of San Luis, rebels dynamited the election headquarters, killing a woman.

``Today is a test of fire, because democracy is seriously threatened,″ said Santiago Murray, chief of election observers from the Organization of American States.

President Andres Pastrana _ who is constitutionally barred from re-election _ said as he voted that Colombians must respond to violence with the ``weapon of democracy.″

``We are going to say to the violent ones that it is through votes and not bullets that they can achieve their objectives,″ said Pastrana, who canceled peace talks with Colombia’s main rebel group in February after three fruitless years.

While Pastrana won election on a peace platform, Uribe appears headed for victory on a war platform, fueled by voter disgust that the rebels did not grasp Pastrana’s olive branch. Military commanders say the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as the FARC, used the negotiating period _ in which they were granted a Switzerland-sized safe haven _ to strengthen their forces.

The results will be closely observed in Washington, where the Bush Administration has laid out plans to broaden U.S. military aid beyond counternarcotics efforts. But Uribe’s hard-line reputation could raise red flags about human rights.

Opponents have tried to link Uribe to an outlawed right-wing paramilitary group which has massacred suspected rebel collaborators. Uribe denies any ties or sympathy, and has promised to battle all armed groups equally.

Rebels on Sunday placed car bombs on at least four roads connecting provincial capitals. Voting in six remote southern counties was suspended after the rebels destroyed voting materials. Scattered clashes between rebels and army troops were also reported, in which two rebels were killed and two soldiers wounded.

In the village of Caney Medio, south of Bogota, authorities closed polls after rebels dynamited an electrical tower nearby and were believed lurking nearby. Voters were told to cast ballots in a nearby town. Many could not afford the taxi fare to get there.

``We’re peasants here,″ said Didier Restrepo, a 29-year-old laborer. ``It’s too far to walk, so I can’t vote this time.″

Soldiers guarding the road to Caney Medio said they had orders not to go there because they could be attacked by guerrillas in the verdant hills above.

But in most of Colombia, voting was orderly.

Competing for a distant third after Uribe and Serpa, were Garzon and Noemi Sanin, a former foreign minister. Another female candidate, former senator Ingrid Betancourt, was kidnapped in February at a rebel roadblock.

At least half the country’s 24 million registered voters were expected to cast ballots. The elections were being monitored by the Organization of American States.

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