Colombia Local Elections Peaceful
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ After months of violence-marred campaigning, voting went peacefully in elections seen as a vote against the guerrilla and paramilitary warfare that has wracked Colombia for decades.
Independents claimed mayoral races in four of Colombia’s five largest cities Sunday, posing a challenge to the two traditional political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. Their victories included Bogota, where Antanas Mockus, an eccentric former university professor who held the post from 1995-97, was named mayor.
Turnout appeared strong, despite months of violence, and there were no reports of major clashes Sunday. Voting was disrupted in only two of Colombia’s nearly 1,100 municipalities. Isolated fighting left two soldiers and one guerrilla dead _ fewer casualties than on a typical day.
In a guerrilla-held area in the south, leftist rebels were charged with stealing ballots, invalidating that region’s vote. It was the first time in 36 years of fighting that Colombians had voted under formal rebel rule.
Sunday’s elections came amid mounting tensions here: The country is bracing for increased fighting as a U.S. backed anti-drug offensive gets under way in cocaine-producing regions controlled by the guerrillas and paramilitary groups.
Washington is providing Colombia with $1.3 billion in mostly military aid and training to fight the drug trade and strengthen democratic institutions.
``Voting sends a very important message to the peace process,″ President Andres Pastrana said after casting his ballot in Bogota’s colonial Bolivar Plaza. ``It says to the insurgents that Colombians want to strengthen our democratic process, to strengthen our democracy.″
Violence among rebels, rival paramilitary militias and government troops has left tens of thousands dead, forced millions to flee their homes and crippled a once-vibrant economy.
Twenty-one candidates for mayor or city council were killed by paramilitary groups or leftist rebels in the run-up to the elections, according to Colombia’s mayors’ association. About 100 candidates withdrew, citing intimidation and threats by the armed factions.
In the past week alone, eight lawmakers and local political candidates were kidnapped by suspected militias or guerrillas.
``This country is a disaster,″ said Lucy Restrepo said as she left a polling station in a wealthy Bogota neighborhood guarded by soldiers with machine guns.
``There is robbery, corruption, war. It’s horrible,″ she said. ``Who knows if my vote will help?″
Guerrillas do not consider the political system legitimate and were not formally participating in the elections. However, the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, largely honored its pledge not to disrupt the process.
In San Vicente del Caguan, the largest of five southern municipalities the FARC controls openly under a peace concession from Pastrana, an independent was elected mayor even though the rebels informally backed his opponent.
However, charges that rebels stole ballots forced officials to void elections in Vista Hermosa, another of the five FARC-held towns.
In Putumayo, a southern state paralyzed by a month-old FARC road blockade and clashes with paramilitaries, voting held only in large towns went smoothly, officials said.
In separate news Sunday, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, announced that about two dozen hostages kidnapped last month near the western city of Cali would be freed starting Monday.