March 10, 2002

Colombians vote for new congress

                 BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Colombians fed up with rebel attacks voted
                 under heavy security Sunday for a new congress that could be called on to
                 give the military more money and a freer hand to combat leftist insurgents.

                 Three years of fruitless peace talks collapsed last month, sparking heightened
                 guerrilla attacks against this South American country's infrastructure and boosting
                 support for hardline politicians running for congress and in next May's presidential

                 Colombians flocked to voting stations in the cities, jungles and Andean mountains
                 across this South American nation. Many said they 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 -- a body that has itself
                 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, several of whom were placed on the ballot anyway.

                 A right-wing paramilitary group known for its brutal massacres has also cast its
                 shadow over the election. The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, is
                 secretly backing candidates that could support its hardline 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 Sunday, and
                 voting proceeded peacefully across the country. The rebels burned ballots in 15 of
                 the nation's 1,042 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 right-wing paramilitary group -- had warned voters not to travel to polls on
                 Sunday. But no bloodshed specifical ly related to the elections was reported.

                 In one of the few cases of violence Sunday, army troops killed five rebels who
                 were tying 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 revoked a rebel safe haven when the
                 guerrillas hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senator aboard.

                 "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.

                 Since the collapse of peace talks on February. 20, the FARC has stepped up attacks
                 against the country's infrastructure, including bombing water reservoirs, bridges
                 and energy pylons. Vast areas of this country, which is the size of Spain, France
                 and Portugal combined, have been left isolated and in darkness.

                 Pastrana is barred by law from running for a second term in the upcoming
                 presidential elections. His Conservative Party, battered by the failure of peace talks
                 and a weak economy during Pastrana's term, was struggling Sunday to retain its
                 political influence.

                 The front-runner in the presidential elections, Alvaro Uribe, has pledged to use
                 heavier force against the FARC, a campaign platform that is boosting his popularity
                 -- and that of parliamentary candidates he backs.

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.