Colombians elect hard-liner Uribe
Voters back his campaign pledge to battle rebels
BY FRANCES ROBLES
BOGOTA - Alvaro Uribe Vélez, the presidential candidate who campaigned with tough talk against leftist rebels and survived three assassination attempts, overcame 10 other contenders Sunday to become the new leader of Colombia.
Uribe, a former mayor of Medellín and governor of Antioquia province, is best known for his vow to crack down on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the leftist insurgency also known as the FARC, which allegedly killed his father in a botched kidnapping attempt nearly 20 years ago.
Colombians, weary of FARC attacks on civilians, bridges and energy towers, showed Sunday that they are willing to see their new leader pursue a military solution in an effort to end the 38-year-old conflict with rebel forces.
With 98 percent of the votes counted, national election officials said Uribe was leading with 52.9 percent, compared with 31.7 percent for former Interior Minister Horacio Serpa -- his closest challenger.
Once 97 percent of the vote was counted, Serpa recognized his defeat and vowed never to run for president or hold public office again.
In his acceptance speech, Uribe said: ```Colombia has expressed its will to restore civility -- restore order. Colombia doesn't want the world to only know of its bad, violent news; it wants the world to know of its determination to defeat violence.''
He promised to work hard at resolving the problems of one of the world's most dangerous countries with the highest unemployment rate in Latin America.
The vote took place with sporadic incidents of violence throughout the nation, including 11 towns where elections could not take place. In at least five cities, FARC rebels destroyed the ballots.
Security was particularly tight because Uribe, the leading candidate for months, has been the target of assassination attempts by guerrillas.
Uribe's campaign counts 16 assassination tries during the course of the 49-year-old candidate's 20-year political career, and three during the campaign season alone. One bombing against his campaign caravan killed four civilians.
Although he enjoyed a solid reputation as an effective governor and efficient senator, Uribe was a virtual unknown here a year ago. He shot from obscurity to become the runaway favorite with his harsh rhetoric toward the FARC. He struck a chord with a public tired of violence and cynical about years of negotiations that failed to end the long-running insurgency.
Uribe has promised to double the size of the military, now stretched thin fighting the 17,000-strong FARC. He also plans to hire one million civilian volunteers to act as informants against rebels who commit acts of terrorism. As governor of Antioquia, Uribe strongly backed the national Convivir program, which involved civilians acting as neighborhood watchmen.
The program was criticized by human rights groups who said some of the Convivir guards were allied with the AUC, the rightist paramilitaries who formed their own army 20 years ago to fight the FARC.
''We can't allow 50 years of violence to go on,'' said Fernando Ortiz, a 43-year-old unemployed Uribe supporter. ``All the presidents offer peace, and peace doesn't come. Peace comes when we all have jobs and livable salaries.''
Uribe's candidacy has been closely watched by Washington, which is poised to allow its $1.3 billion in anti-narcotics military aid to be used against the FARC. Among the well-wishers Sunday night when election results were nearly all counted: U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson.
''I think Colombians are fed up with terrorism,'' Patterson said.
Throughout his campaign, Uribe was dogged by allegations that
his candidacy was supported by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia,
or AUC. ''Uribe would govern with two armies: the regular army and the
paramilitaries,'' said Bonifacio Chicunque, leader of the Kamentxa Indian
tribe. ``For us, Uribe represents
the interests of the rich. The indigenous are poor.''
In their quest to do away with the FARC, the paramilitaries are blamed for 1,000 murders a year. Uribe has denied links to the group.
The paramilitaries promised before Sunday's voting not to disrupt the elections. Their FARC adversaries, meanwhile, placed car bombs on at least four roads connecting provincial capitals. Scattered clashes between rebels and army troops in which two rebels were killed and two soldiers wounded also were reported.
Elections took place with rifle-toting soldiers perched on every corner, as 11 million Colombians out of 24 million registered voters went to the polls, hoping jobs and peace would be the eventual outcome.
Authorities ordered more than 200,000 police and soldiers to protect polling stations. At least 400 polling stations were moved to avoid violence. Before casting ballots at the Plaza Bolívar in downtown Bogotá, voters were first patted down and checked for weapons.
''While they continue using bullets, explosives, kidnappings and massacres against the Colombian people, we will use the most important weapon we have, the weapon of democracy,'' outgoing President Andrés Pastrana said.
Pastrana was legally prohibited from running for reelection.
He was elected in 1998 on a platform exactly opposite of Uribe's: peace with the rebels. He'll turn the post over to Uribe Aug. 7.
In third place was union leader Luis Garzón. In fourth place: former Foreign Minister Noemí Sanín, who failed to secure the millions of votes cast in her favor in 1998.
Candidate Ingrid Betancourt attracted 0.5 percent of the votes. The ex-senator was kidnapped by the FARC on Feb. 23 and has not been seen since.
Herald special correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky contributed to this report.