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Uribe Elected President of War-Torn Colombia

Uribe’s leading opponent, Liberal party candidate and former Interior Minister Horacio Serpa, conceded defeat late Sunday evening.

“I accept defeat and declare that Alvaro Uribe Velez was declared president of Colombians,” Serpa told reporters and supporters.

With 98 percent of the votes counted, election officials said Uribe had garnered 52.8 percent of the ballots cast, compared to 31.8 percent for Serpa. The majority vote gave Uribe an outright victory and averted a second-round runoff next month.

Even as the final votes were being counted, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said the Uribe government could count on American support.

“It looks like he’s ahead by a very significant amount and I’m here to congratulate him… Colombians are fed up of terrorism,” Patterson said upon entering the hotel where Uribe supporters were gathering. She went on to predict the U.S. would have “very close” relations with an Uribe administration.

The election came as violence between the government and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continued to increase. Ahead of the election, the FARC planted car bombs, attacked power lines and reportedly gunned down a rural mayor. Uribe has vowed to crush the leftist rebels blamed for the latest attacks.

The Colombian government deployed nearly 200,000 troops and police to provide security over the election weekend. International election observers have also accused left-wing and right-wing armed groups of using intimidation and violence to influence voters.

Uribe’s own efforts to vote indicated the level of security concerns. Some 70 heavily armed bodyguards and police accompanied the hard-line candidate as he voted.

“It is important to exercise your democratic right. Once you do that, everything is possible,” Uribe, a lawyer who was educated at Harvard and Oxford, said. “There is a way to respond to violence and corruption: with tons of votes.”

Uribe, formerly the governor of the war-torn Antioquia province, ran on an independent coalition and appeared to win broad cross-party support from the Liberal and Conservative parties — the two parties that have dominated Colombian politics for the last 150 years.

Public opinion polls had Uribe ahead since peace talks with the FARC collapsed in February. Second-placed Horacio Serpa, who had advocated renewing talks, trailed by more than 20 points ahead of the vote.

Uribe has pledged more the $1 billion in support for military and police to help fight against leftist guerillas. Colombia has been fighting the rebels for nearly 40 years, but Uribe’s hard-line approach won over many voters after peace talks with the FARC collapsed in February.

The son of a wealthy landowning family, Uribe has appealed to the middle and upper classes, business owners, and the military with his pledge to double the military and enlist one million civilian volunteers to help to inform the Colombian military of potential terrorists. Uribe endorses the civilian “watch groups” to fill the void of state security forces, which often do not protect residents from battles between the paramilitaries, guerrillas, and narcotics traffickers.

Colombia’s business leaders and international investors are attracted to Uribe’s pledge to restore stability and peace to the country with a “firm hand.” Historically, international financiers and businesses have stayed away from Colombia due to its internal conflict, especially when guerrillas have explicitly declared foreign businesses and executives their enemies.

Uribe, 49, credits his father, a prominent farmer and livestock trader allegedly killed by FARC guerrillas in 1983, for forging his hard-line approach to the guerrillas.

”There is one path: authority,” Uribe said recently. “The president has to be a leader in public order night and day.”

Critics have questioned Uribe’s human rights record and his possible links with paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Several human rights organizations and several senior members of the United Nations, have assailed Uribe’s encouragement of armed civilian groups, called CONVIVIRS, which were linked brutal paramilitary groups, during his governorship. Uribe has denied ever having supported or collaborated with paramilitaries.

Uribe essentially ended all public campaign stops last month after a powerful car bomb nearly killed him. The blast, thought to be the work of FARC fighters, did kill four other people and damaged Uribe’s bullet-proof car.

Uribe has also been the strongest advocate of continued U.S. counter-narcotics support, campaigning to expand U.S. involvement beyond the scope of narcotic operations.

“I would ask for the extension of Plan Colombia to avoid terrorism, kidnapping, massacres and the take-over of towns,” Uribe has said. “We need new forms of international cooperation.”

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