Colombians vote for new congress
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
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,
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
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
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
risky for many candidates.
Election-related violence was at a minimum through mid-afternoon Sunday,
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
deployed, authorities said.
Rebels in the eastern state of Arauca -- which is being fought over by
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
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
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
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
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
The front-runner in the presidential elections, Alvaro Uribe, has pledged
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.