Violence Rocks Colombia on Eve of Inauguration

Even as Colombia’s security forces went on high alert, uprisings in several areas Monday night left as many as 40 dead and sent some 3,000 residents fleeing from their homes, Colombia’s Ombudsman, Eduardo Cifuentes, told reporters.

The worst fighting came during a clash between the Marxist FARC rebels and the right-wing AUC paramilitaries in Valencia, a rural village in the embattled Cordoba province. Local workers said only three bodies were brought to the morgue, but believed another “40 more bodies had been thrown over the mountainside,” the El Colombiano newspaper reported Tuesday.

At least 11 FARC insurgents died during a firefight with Colombian soldiers in the village of La Uribe in the Meta province. FARC insurgents had reportedly invaded the village, located near the FARC’s former demilitarized zone, when the gunfire exchange began. One soldier was reportedly killed in the exchange.

Elsewhere in Meta, twelve FARC rebels died in a car bomb explosion. Military officials said they suspected the guerrillas were plotting to attack a nearby village when the explosives accidentally went off.

In the Casanares province, rebels toppled at least five energy towers, leaving nearly 250,000 residents without electricity. A separate guerilla attack on the Cano-Limon oil pipeline interrupted crude transport to the Caribbean port of Covenas. The U.S. has pledged millions in anti-terror funding to help protect the heavily-targeted petroleum pipeline.

The latest violence comes at the close of President Andres Pastrana’s four-year administration, during which he unsuccessfully pursued a cease-fire agreement with Colombia’s insurgent groups. Pastrana’s popularity declined as terrorist activity, crime and murders soared.

During the recent presidential campaign, Colombians were attracted to Uribe’s hard-line tactics against guerrillas and his campaign slogan of “firm hand, big heart.”

Ahead of Uribe’s swearing-in ceremony, some 21,000 Colombian police and military guards will be stationed throughout the country’s capital city of Bogota. The U.S., which supports Colombia with billions in anti-narcotics aid, loaned Colombian authorities a U.S. Customs Service aircraft to monitor traffic in the skies over Bogota.

The Colombian government also announced strict public safety measures, such as curfews and energy-use restrictions, for other cities and municipalities throughout Colombia ahead of the power transfer. After the inauguration, Pastrana is expected to depart for a brief “voluntary exile” in Spain.

Once sworn in, Uribe says the first item on his agenda will be to present Congress with a referendum asking Colombians to approve a dramatic increase in military spending and an overhaul of the country’s legislative branch.

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