Pubdate: Mon, 11 Mar 2002
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Page: A6
Copyright: 2002 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Jared Kotler (AP)


BOGOTA - Colombians embittered by rebel violence voted under heavy security 
yesterday for a new Congress, a body which could be called on to give the 
US-backed military bigger budgets and a freer hand to combat leftist 

Three years of fruitless peace talks collapsed last month, and the 
guerrillas launched a wave of attacks against the South American country's 
infrastructure - boosting support for hard-line candidates for Congress and 
in May's presidential elections.

Many Colombians voting yesterday said they had had enough of the 
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and other illegal armed 

"The violent groups had an opportunity to negotiate, without fighting, but 
they didn't take it seriously," Gerardo Mota, the 33- year-old owner of a 
laundry business, said after he cast his ballot in the capital.

Mota called for "a firm hand" in dealing with the insurgents.

Up for grabs were all 268 seats in the Colombian Congress, which itself has 
been targeted in the civil war. The FARC has made it a policy to kidnap 
lawmakers, hoping to trade them for imprisoned rebels. It currently holds 
five member of Congress, some of whom were placed on the ballot anyway.

A right-wing paramilitary group known for its brutal massacres also has 
cast its shadow over the election. The United Self-Defense Forces of 
Colombia, or AUC, is secretly backing candidates who could support its 
hard-line counterinsurgency agenda in the Congress.

Threats from both the FARC and the AUC made campaigning in rural areas too 
risky for many candidates.

Election-related violence was at a minimum through mid-afternoon yesterday, 
and voting proceeded peacefully across the country. The rebels burned 
ballots in 15 of the nation's 1,097 municipalities, likely preventing 
voting in those remote towns, said Interior Minister Armando Estrada.

The rebels had urged Colombians to boycott the elections, saying only those 
who would pursue the interests of the rich would be elected.

About 150,000 troops and police provided security - the biggest force ever 
deployed, authorities said.

Rebels in the eastern state of Arauca, which is being fought over by the 
FARC and a paramilitary group, had warned voters not to travel to the 
polls. But no bloodshed specifically related to the elections was reported.

In one of the few cases of violence yesterday, army troops killed five 
rebels who were trying to blow up a bridge in northwest Antioquia state, 
the military reported. Three other FARC rebels died in clashes in the 
southern states of Huila, Caqueta, and Meta.

President Andres Pastrana cast his ballot in Bogota's colonial central 
plaza, less than a month after he ended the peace process and ordered the 
army to retake a rebel-controlled zone. His decision came after the 
guerrillas hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senator aboard it.

"By voting, Colombians are going to defeat terrorism and show the violent 
ones and the intolerant that what we want is to strengthen our democracy," 
Pastrana said.

Voters in the southern Colombian city of Florencia, which has suffered 
blackouts and food shortages due to FARC bombings, lined up to cast ballots 
as soldiers in combat gear patrolled the streets.

"I want to support democracy," said Maria Paula Toledo, a cook at a 
hospital. "It's time for us to leave our fears behind, and to move ahead."

Since the collapse of peace talks on Feb. 20, the FARC has stepped up 
attacks, bombing reservoirs, bridges, and energy installations. Vast areas 
of the country, which is the size of Spain, France, and Portugal combined, 
have been left isolated and in darkness.

The attacks are helping solidify support in Washington for expanded US 
military aid.

The Bush administration has said it is reviewing a policy that currently 
limits aid to counternarcotics purposes.

Pastrana's Conservative Party, battered by the failure of peace talks and a 
weak economy during Pastrana's term, was struggling to retain its political 
influence yesterday.
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