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Colombia Increasing Security On Eve Of Presidential Elections - 2002-05-25

In Colombia, the government of President Andres Pastrana is taking strong measures to ensure a safe and fair voting process in his nation's presidential elections on Sunday. Leftist guerrillas have threatened to disrupt the voting in some areas, but election officials are confident that the process will go smoothly.

The bars and restaurants of Cartagena are a little less boisterous this weekend - the government has imposed a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide until the election is over. The government has also dispatched 210,000 soldiers and police agents throughout the nation to protect polling stations.

People in this Caribbean port city live relatively far from the main conflict zones in Colombia's 38-year civil war, but they, too, feel nervous about what may come Sunday.

Last month, a bomb in the nearby coastal city of Barranquilla killed four people. It was detonated as the caravan of front-runner presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe passed by. The candidate was not hurt, but he stopped most public campaigning after that incident. Last Thursday, four soldiers trying to clear a minefield near the coast were killed by an explosion. Three others were injured.

In the past few days, the country's main leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, has issued warnings against voting in some areas of the country. The FARC and a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, have been blamed for several attacks against infrastructure, such as bridges and power line towers, in recent days. The rebels have also been blamed for stolen ballots and electoral materials in some remote towns.

But President Pastrana, who is prevented by law from seeking re-election, says he believes the voting will proceed without disruption in more than 90 percent of the country.

He says the armed forces and police are making every effort to see that these are safe, clean and fair elections.

Observers from the Organization of American States say Colombia has a well-established electoral system that has managed to carry out elections in the past when there were threats from violent sectors, and that the same should happen on Sunday. The latest public opinion poll, released in the El Tiempo newspaper Saturday, shows independent candidate Uribe with 48.2 percent, just a little less than the 50 percent he would need to avoid a runoff. But another poll, released several days ago, shows him with 51 percent of the vote. If Mr. Uribe does win a majority of the vote Sunday, he will be the first candidate ever to win the first round in a Colombian presidential election. His closest rival in the polls is Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa, who trails behind at around 27 percent.

Mr. Uribe surged in the polls over the past six months by emphasizing a get-tough approach with the leftist rebels. If elected, he said, he will increase military spending and seek more help from the United States, which currently provides over one billion dollars in anti-narcotics assistance that is not supposed to be used for anti-insurgency operations.

Some human rights groups have expressed concern that Mr. Uribe may allow right-wing paramilitary groups more leeway in their fight against the FARC and ELN. These outlawed civilian militias have been accused of massive rights abuses in many rural areas, and are, like the leftist rebels, also involved in drug-smuggling.