May 28, 2006

Colombian voters give Uribe second term

By Angus MacSwan

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - President Alvaro Uribe, a key
U.S. ally in Latin America, swept to a landslide victory in an
election in Colombia on Sunday, rewarded by voters for turning
around the security threat in a country bloodied by years of
conflict and crime.

The closest of Uribe's five challengers, Carlos Gaviria of
the center-left Democratic Pole, conceded after official counts
showed Uribe leading with more than 62 percent of the vote.

"What we have to do at this time is recognize the victory
of President Uribe," Gaviria, a former judge, told local radio
at his campaign headquarters.

As counting closed, several hundred supporters crowded into
Uribe's campaign headquarters in a Bogota hotel chanting:
"Uribe, Uribe, Long Live Colombia."

Caravans of cars with honking horns and people waving the
red-yellow-and-blue national flag drove through the posh
district of north Bogota in a noisy celebration.

The victory by Uribe, a 53-year-old lawyer and landowner,
will be welcome relief for Washington after a string of
election victories by leftists in Latin America and with
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez leading a campaign to counter
U.S. free-market ideas with socialist reforms for the poor.

The election was the most peaceful vote in years in a
country where thousands are killed each year in a now
four-decade-old armed conflict.

Troops patrolled the streets of the capital Bogota, high in
the Andes mountains, and across the nation of 41 million people
but no major guerrilla attacks were reported.

The key to Uribe's success has been a crackdown on
right-wing militias and the leftist FARC rebels who use
Colombia's cocaine trade to sustain their insurgency.

Voters praised Uribe for bringing greater security to the
cities, although armed groups still hold sway in much of the
countryside. They have welcomed being able to lead more normal
lives in Bogota and other cities after years in which
kidnappings, car bombs and assassinations had been frequent.

"The only thing that worries me somewhat is that Uribe has
done a lot for the rich but not so much for the poor. But in
terms of security, he has helped us out a lot," said housewife
Gloria Ospina after voting for Uribe in a middle-class north
Bogota neighborhood.

In a break with past practice, the FARC urged people to
vote, apparently calculating that a campaign of violence on
election day would play into Uribe's hands.

The army reported just a few incidents. Four guerrillas
blew themselves up in eastern Arauca province while preparing
explosives and a fifth was killed in a similar incident outside
the city of Cali.

Carlos Vargas, 39, a video editor who lives in Bogota's
working-class Ciudad Bolivar district, said there had been more
fear of guerrilla attacks and bombs in previous elections.

"In the past elections in the town where my family lives in
Arauca the guerrilla took over the town and did not let anyone
vote," he said.


Uribe says he needs another four years to finish the job.
He says he will offer the 17,000-strong FARC -- the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- peace talks but that
they must lay down their arms.

Critics say Uribe must pay attention to the plight of the
poor who make up around half of Colombia's population.

Colombia's economy grew a brisk 5.3 percent last year and
foreign investment picked up, but Uribe's opponents called for
more social spending in their campaigns.

In Ciudad Bolivar, people said they wanted more jobs but
that Uribe had helped with social projects.

"We voted for Uribe so that he can conclude all his
projects. He is doing it well. The security system has improved
here; before there was not authority here," said Alfonso
Castillon, a 66-year-old invalid.

A stable Colombia is also vital to U.S. interests. The
senior U.S. official for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, met
with Uribe during a brief visit to Bogota on Friday.

Colombian traffickers are the main suppliers of cocaine and
heroin to drug-users in the United States. Washington has
pumped more military aid into Colombia than any other country
outside the Middle East in the past four years.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey and Luis Jaime