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Colombia voting day violence kills 13

FARC rebels call on voters to boycott referendum poll

A Colombian soldier guards a polling station in Tocaima, south of Bogota.
A Colombian soldier guards a polling station in Tocaima, south of Bogota.

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BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- At least 13 people were killed Saturday in Colombia in scattered, nationwide attacks by Marxist rebels determined to sabotage a referendum on what would be sweeping constitutional reform, military and police officials said.

The dead in the attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) included civilians and security force members.

President Alvaro Uribe is proposing 15 changes to the country's 1991 constitution. He says the changes are aimed at cutting the state budget, cutting the number of seats in Congress, freezing public-sector pay and reducing the notorious corruption in Colombian politics.

The rebels, who have spent four decades fighting to topple the government and usher in a socialist system, have called on voters to stay away. Uribe has vowed to crush the rebels and condemns them as "terrorists." About 3,500 people, mainly civilians, are killed in the fighting annually.

A Defense Ministry spokesman listed several violent incidents, including a predawn firefight that began when FARC guerillas tried to storm a police post in the southwest town of Jambalo. Four policemen died in the fighting.

Early in the day, a soldier was killed when a rebel faction launched a barrage of mortars at the headquarters of the army's 6th Brigade in the central city of Ibague.

In the nearby town of Silvia, two police officers were killed and seven others wounded in a rebel ambush, the spokesman said.

Around mid-day, a regional police officer said, six civilians were killed and nine wounded when a bomb packed inside milk urns exploded outside a milk-processing plant in the town of Yarumal, in northwest Antioquia province.

A wave of car bombs, minor explosions and attacks on power pylons were reported in other parts of the country. Although no casualties were reported in those incidents, military sources said at least eight towns and cities including a wide swath of the Pacific coast were left without power.

Guerrilla fighters also torched at least 11 tractor-trailers close to the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura, Colombia's largest seaport.

There were numerous reports that rebel units had burned voting papers and ballot boxes in outlying towns and villages to prevent citizens backing the referendum.

The referendum can be declared invalid if fewer than a quarter of Colombia's 24 million voters cast a ballot. As of early afternoon, there was no official word on voter turnout.

The guerrillas describe Uribe's administration as "fascist."

Beyond the specific details of the referendum, Uribe has called on voters to turn out en masse as a way of shoring up Colombia's fragile democracy. Barely a year into Uribe's administration, the vote is widely regarded by political analysts as a test of his support as well as a measure of the rebels' military muscle.

After Saturday's referendum, Colombians return to the polls Sunday to elect provincial governors, mayors and town councils in 32 provinces and more than 1,000 towns and cities.

The rebels have also vowed to sabotage that vote. They want to replace the country's elections with grassroots "people's councils," but they have not spelled out how those would function.

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