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Colombia looks to stop violence on campaign trail

Alvaro Uribe, the frontrunner, survived assassination attempt on Sunday.  

BOGOTA, Colombia, April 15 (Reuters) -- Colombia is looking for ways to prevent presidential candidates from being ambushed on the campaign trail, following an assassination attempt on Sunday that has stoked fears of a bloody run-up to next month's vote.

President Andres Pastrana on Monday recommended campaigning more from home and offered candidates extra free television time to replace risky rallies in the war-ravaged nation. He also called a military review of candidates' security.

Election favorite Alvaro Uribe, whose hard-line stance against leftist rebels has sent him soaring in polls, narrowly escaped a bombing of his motorcade on Sunday that killed three people and injured 13 others.

The attack, one of several urban strikes by suspected FARC guerrillas in the past week, revived dark memories of Colombia's 1990 elections when far-right gunmen and drug cartels killed four presidential candidates.

More than a decade later, 10 people die a day in Colombia's guerrilla conflict, and political killings here are common.

"Faced with worries over what happened yesterday ... we are looking for alternative methods for the election campaign," Pastrana said. "Once again, Colombia's insurgent groups have shown they are dedicated to terrorism."

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has kidnapped and is holding one presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, who rebels picked off at a road block in February, two days after Pastrana called off peace talks.

The United States brands the FARC "terrorists," and Pastrana will travel to Washington on Tuesday to lobby for U.S. aid to directly fight rebels as part of the Bush administration's expanding war on terrorism.

In the past eight days, rebels have kidnapped 12 provincial lawmakers, and, according to police, planted four bombs in Bogota and donated a car bomb on the city's outskirts that killed 12 people and injured 70 others.

Uribe's campaign, the mostly heavily policed here, said it opted for more TV time, and less campaigning in the streets.

"There are some people that don't want Alvaro Uribe to be president of Colombia," said Uribe's vice-presidential running mate, Francisco Santos, referring to leftist rebels.

The 49-year-old Harvard and Oxford-educated lawyer emerged on Sunday from his wrecked armored car unscarred and talking tough against violence to a nation that has seen 40,000 lives lost in the past decade of guerrilla warfare.

According to the most recent opinion poll, Uribe, an independent candidate, had 51 percent support -- giving him a 22 percentage point lead over his nearest rival, Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa.

If Uribe fears rebels are trying to kill him, Serpa alleges paramilitaries want the tough-talking candidate elected. He filed allegations with the attorney general, saying the militias were waging an armed campaign to coerce people to vote for Uribe.

"A fraud is being committed beyond the voting booths, obliging people to vote against their will. An election under these conditions is suspicious," Serpa said.

The paramilitaries have meddled in Colombia's electoral process before and are blamed for the deaths of three presidential candidates in the 1990 election.

A lieutenant of late drug lord Pablo Escobar took credit for the killing of Liberal Party candidate Luis Carlos Galan -- shot to death on the campaign trail by a lone gunman.

Santiago Murray, head election monitor at the Organization of American States, said outlawed fighters needed to "reflect ... and allow the people to express themselves freely."




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