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Leftist Threats Could Lower Voter Turnout in Colombia

The government of Colombia is preparing for Presidential elections on Sunday amid a climate of violence and fear in many parts of the South American nation. Threats by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the leftist guerrilla group known as the FARC, could diminish voter turnout in some areas.

Political analysts here in Colombia are looking for levels of voter participation Sunday that would be in line with those of past elections, in which there was just over 50 percent turnout. But the FARC has called for a boycott of the election and rightwing paramilitary groups may also attempt to intimidate voters in some areas.

This week there has been unprecedented fighting between Colombian security forces and FARC guerrillas on the streets of the nation's second-largest city, Medellin. At least nine people died in the fighting Tuesday when government forces tried to dislodge the FARC from neighborhoods where the rebels have established control.

President Andres Pastrana, who by law can not seek a second term, acknowledges that various armed groups could disrupt the voting process, but he says the government is taking steps to guarantee the integrity of the process.

He says his government and the armed forces are prepared to respond to whatever problems arise in order to allow the electoral process to proceed without interruption. The Colombian leader says that in addition to the FARC, another leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, and several paramilitary organizations pose a threat to the voting in some places.

The major candidates in the presidential election stopped most campaigning in public last month after a bomb came close to killing front-runner Alvaro Uribe Velez.

There have been a number of other bombings and violent clashes in Colombia since a three-year effort to start peace talks with the FARC broke down in February.

One minor presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, was kidnapped by the guerrillas February 23 and is still being held.

Outrage over kidnappings and other crimes carried out by the FARC helped boost Mr. Uribe in the polls. Although the FARC began in 1964 with social justice and agrarian reform as its principal causes, most Colombians now view the rebels as simple criminals who enrich themselves through drug smuggling, kidnapping and extortion. In public opinion polls, less than five percent of Colombians say they support the FARC.