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Colombians ignore fear to elect new Congress

Updated:

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombians ignored threats of rebel violence to elect ex-guerrillas, traditional party politicians and a former army general to a new Congress that will try to bring peace to the country.

The lawmakers elected on Sunday face heavy responsibilities as the South American country braces for wider fighting following the recent collapse of talks trying to end a 38-year civil war.

The 268-member congress could be asked to tackle political corruption and give the U.S.-backed military bigger budgets and a freer hand to combat leftist insurgents.

It also could find itself a target in the war.

Colombia's main rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has made it a policy to kidnap lawmakers, hoping to trade them for imprisoned rebels. It currently holds five lawmakers, several of whom were on Sunday's ballot.

Six lawmakers have been assassinated in the past two years, including a senator slain last week by suspected FARC rebels.

Officials prepared Sunday for massive sabotage attacks by the FARC, which has tried to disrupt past elections. The group urged Colombians to abstain, saying only candidates supporting the rich would be elected.

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

But with 150,000 troops and police mobilized around the country, there only were scattered incidents. Authorities canceled voting in 15 of the nation's 1,097 municipalities, mainly because rebels seized and burned the ballots, Interior Minister Armando Estrada said.

In clashes unrelated to the voting, troops killed eight FARC rebels, including five trying to blow up a bridge in northwest Antioquia state, the military reported.

Since three years of fruitless peace talks ended Feb. 20, the FARC has stepped up attacks _ bombing reservoirs, bridges and energy pylons. Vast areas of this country _ the size of Spain, France and Portugal combined _ are isolated and in darkness.

Sunday's winners included several hard-line candidates associated with Alvaro Uribe, a former state governor whose strong anti-rebel rhetoric gives him a huge lead in polls for May's presidential elections.

According to final official results from the National Registrar's Office, the Liberal Party remained the largest force in the Congress.

President Andres Pastrana belongs to the Conservative Party.

Many of those voting Sunday said they were fed up with the FARC and other armed factions squaring off in the civil war.

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

Maria Paula Toledo, a hospital cook in the southern city of Florencia, where FARC bombings have caused blackouts and food shortages, lined up to vote as soldiers in full combat gear patrolled the streets.

``I want to support democracy,'' she said. ``It's time for us to leave our fears behind, and to move ahead.''

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

The AUC's clandestine ties to Colombia's armed forces have limited U.S. military aid because of concerns in Washington about human rights.

But the mounting guerrilla violence appears to be solidifying Washington support for an expanded U.S. role. The Bush administration said it is reviewing a policy that currently limits aid _ nearly $2 billion in the last two years alone _ to counter-narcotics purposes.

Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine.
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