At least three die in Colombia bombing before vote

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BOGOTA, Oct 27 (Reuters) Two Colombian marines and at least one civilian were killed when guerrillas bombed a military patrol in the country's main Pacific port city less than two days before elections, authorities said today.

Nine people were wounded in the blast yesterday night outside a restaurant in a poor neighborhood of Buenaventura, where guerrillas, paramilitaries and traffickers often battle for control of drug trade routes.

The attack came before Sunday's vote for governors, mayors and local councils that analysts say will be a test of how far President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed security policies have curbed the violence and political influence of armed groups.

''It was an explosive of more than 10 kilograms ... set off by remote control,'' Marine Col. Hector Pachon told local radio.

He blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest rebel group known as the FARC.

Supported by billions of dollars in US aid, Uribe has sent troops to drive back the FARC and retake areas under the sway of armed groups. Bombings and kidnappings from Latin America's longest-running guerrilla insurgency have eased.

Colombia remains the world's largest producer of cocaine with most shipments ending up on U.S. and European streets.

At least 21 candidates have been killed during the run-up to the elections. The government blames the FARC for most killings and says assassinations are down from a 2003 vote, but one election watchdog disputes the government figure and says the number of deaths has increased.

The disputed figures may be because of differences over whether to include candidates who were killed before they could officially register their campaigns.

Nearly 400,000 troops and police will take to the streets to ensure security during the election. Election observers say nearly half of Colombia's 1,100 municipalities face some form of election threat or violence.

Helped by cocaine cash, the FARC remains potent in remote areas.

Outlawed paramilitaries who once fought the FARC have now mostly demobilized under a peace deal with Uribe. But some have rearmed to form drug gangs.

REUTERS SZ PM0150

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