Colombia watchdog says violence up, govt disagrees

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BOGOTA, Oct 20 (Reuters) Assassinations of candidates ahead of Colombia's Octber 28 local elections are up sharply compared to the 2003 campaign as rebels hit by tougher security policies strike back, a watchdog group said.

Twenty-five candidates have fallen victim to leftist guerrillas or gangs replacing disbanded far-right paramilitaries, Colombia's independent Electoral Observation Mission said yesterday in a statement contested by the government, which said violence is down.

A week before the vote, the number of assassinations is already far above the 15 candidates killed in 2003 campaigns for city and town councils, governors and mayors, according to mission member Claudia Lopez.

The rise in killings is due in part to progress being made against leftist rebels put on the defensive over the last four years by tougher government security policies, Lopez said.

''In 2003, the guerrillas had more territorial control and in some of those areas they did not allow elections at all,'' she said. ''This year it is easier for them to kill candidates than to try to ban elections outright. Paradoxically, it is a sign of progress.'' National Police Commander Gen. Oscar Naranjo disagreed with the mission's findings. He said 27 candidates had been gunned down in 2007 compared with 35 in 2003.

Inconsistency in the figures may be due to ways of counting those who did not live long enough to formally register their campaigns for positions.

''The fact that many more candidates are participating in the election this year, and with fewer assassinations, shows that Colombian democracy is strengthening,'' Naranjo said.

Colombia is under pressure to show progress on democratic reforms as the US Congress threatens to reject a free trade deal based on concerns about unchecked political violence, particularly against suspected leftists.

The country is in a four-decade-old war involving Marxist guerrillas and other groups funded by cocaine smuggling.

Over 31,000 right-wing militia members have demobilized under a government peace deal offering them reduced jail terms for crimes including massacres, torture and drug smuggling.

But thousands of former paramilitaries have joined new criminal gangs with no ideology and no qualms about using threats, kidnappings and assassinations to intimidate local officials into cutting them in on public contracts.

''Each new generation of crime gang in Colombia is more purely criminal in nature,'' Lopez said. ''They are less political and more interested in drug trafficking and other traditional organized crime type activities.'' Colombia's public advocate says almost half the country's towns are at risk of electoral violence or intimidation.

REUTERS RKM BST0716

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