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Colombian voters brave violence to elect Congress

Written by: Staff

BOGOTA, Colombia, Mar 13 (Reuters) Colombians went to the polls, despite fear of rebel violence, to elect a new Congress that will determine the government's success in implementing a US free trade deal and other reforms.

President Alvaro Uribe, popular for reducing crime as part of his crackdown on drug-running leftist guerrillas, is expected to win re-election in May and carry on his tough, Washington-backed, military and pro-market economic policies.

He urged his countrymen to vote despite a slew of recent rebel attacks aimed at scaring people away from the polls, which closed at 4 p.m. (2100 GMT). Results were expected late last night.

Juan Carlos Echeverry, head of the economics department at Bogota's University of the Andes, said Uribe was set to win a working majority in the Senate while lower house results are more uncertain. Uribe has strong support in both chambers but has struggled to form reliable majorities.

''This election will determine if the government can succeed in differentiating Colombia from the leftist trends in the region, by siding with Chile and Mexico instead of siding with Venezuela and Argentina,'' Echeverry told Reuters.

''Tax reform and free trade are critical in the sense of Colombia supporting pro-market forces in Latin America,'' he said.

Colombia remains a key US ally in a region where left-wing policies and anti-American sentiment have won favor in recent elections.

About 26.5 million Colombians are registered to elect the Andean country's 268-member Congress, which includes 102 senators and 166 members of the lower house.

Uribe wants Congress to help him shift the tax burden from companies to consumers in a bid to boost investment.

CAR BOMB EXPLODES The free trade pact, signed last month, is seen by economists as key to Colombia's future competitiveness, and Wall Street is clamoring for changes in tax law needed to attract foreign investment to the violence-scarred country.

Dozens of mostly civilians have been killed in recent weeks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which traditionally steps up attacks at election time. Thousands die and tens of thousands are forced from their homes every year in Colombia's decades-old guerrilla war.

A car bomb exploded yesterday in the western jungle province of Choco, but no-one was wounded, the army said. No incidents were reported at the country's voting stations, police said.

''Things are calm. Most of us are voting today just as we always have,'' one Bogota voter told Reuters after casting her ballot.

Uribe has negotiated a peace deal with illegal right-wing paramilitaries, under which about 28,000 fighters have turned in their guns in exchange for reduced jail terms for crimes such as massacre and torture.

Politicians and analysts say the paramilitaries, organised as private militias in the 1980s to fight the rebels, are using Sunday's election to try to increase their power in Congress to avoid being extradited to the United States on cocaine-smuggling charges.

Unlike the paramilitaries, the FARC has refused Uribe's terms for negotiating a peace deal.

The centre-left Liberal Party and leftist Democratic Pole party are using yesterday's vote to choose their presidential candidates. Uribe enjoys a wide lead over of any likely challengers, opinion polls say.

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