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Colombians Vote on Key Referendum Amid Violence

Suspected rebel attacks kill 13. The balloting poses an important test for President Uribe.

October 26, 2003|From Times Wire Services

BOGOTA, Colombia — Suspected guerrillas attacked an army base, ambushed police and launched other attacks across Colombia on Saturday, killing 13 people, as the nation voted in a referendum seen as a test of President Alvaro Uribe's support.

Uribe, a right-winger whose tough stance against rebels has made him highly popular, has campaigned extensively for Colombians to approve the complicated 15-point referendum. He says it will reduce corruption and save money for spending on schools and hospitals by limiting government wages.

Turnout will be crucial to the referendum's outcome. Trade unions and left-leaning politicians, who argue that the measures would hurt the poor, told people to abstain.

Early results showed each of the 15 questions received overwhelming support -- at least 79% in favor. But it was not clear whether the minimum 25% of eligible voters had participated in the ballot for the result to be binding.

With ballots at 40% of the electoral booths counted, only about 2 million of the 6.3 million ballots necessary for the referendum to pass had been registered.

But officials said it was too early to draw conclusions about the overall turnout because results from booths where more votes were cast took longer to process.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is suspected in three attacks that killed six policemen and a soldier, police said.

In addition, a bomb hidden in a milk can killed six civilians at a dairy processing plant in Antioquia province, in a fourth attack that authorities blamed on the FARC. The manager of the plant is a friend and political ally of Uribe's.

Suspected rebels burned trucks and cars on some highways and blew up a bridge in northern Colombia.

The army said the guerrillas had not disrupted voting, and Uribe called on voters not to be intimidated.

"The people are the warriors of democracy," he said in a speech before he voted in Bogota's colonial Bolivar Square, as helicopters whirred overhead and troops stood by.

The government has deployed 270,000 soldiers and police to protect voters over the electoral weekend, which culminates with votes for municipal and regional governments today.

The FARC and far-right paramilitary fighters have killed about 30 candidates in the last few months.

Uribe has warned that if the vote does not pass, public finances -- depleted by a 40-year-old guerrilla war -- could deteriorate into a crisis like the one that shook Argentina.

"The referendum will not work miracles, but it is a step against corruption, against political chicanery," he said.

"It will help us strengthen defense and security, it will help us, in spite of the government's enormous fiscal difficulties, to improve education for the poor and make investments our country needs to build a more just nation," Uribe declared.

But the referendum's complex, technical questions may be confusing for many voters.

Most of the $7 billion the government wants to save over the next seven years comes from a question proposing a two-year freeze on wages for government employees earning at least twice the minimum wage. Others include proposals to reduce the size of Congress and make legislators' votes public.

Supporters hoped that Uribe's popularity would bring out the voters and have likened casting a ballot to an act of patriotism.

"I had never voted before in my life. I came here today to support the president, the people of Colombia," Ofelia Espinel, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman, said after filling in the voting sheet, almost the size of a tabloid newspaper.

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