Colombia on edge as polls draw near

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iol pic wld colombia santos AFP Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos attends a military ceremony in Bogota. Picture: Luis Acosta


Bogota - Gunmen shot at the convoy of a left-wing Colombian presidential candidate on Sunday but no one was injured, police said, raising tensions ahead of May elections that will centre on how to end a five-decade war with guerrillas.

The convoy of Aida Avella of the Patriotic Union party came under fire when it was travelling on a highway in the oil-rich northeastern province of Arauca, where the left-wing FARC and ELN rebels have a heavy presence.

Also on Sunday, President Juan Manuel Santos, who will seek a second term in the May 25 election, said his personal email had been hacked in what he said was a politically motivated act by people who engage in a “dirty war” to grab power.

The Patriotic Union was founded with rebel support in 1985, and around 5 000 members and supporters were assassinated in the years after its creation by right-wing paramilitary groups set up by vigilantes protecting wealthy landowners.

Avella, 65, has around 1 or 2 percent support among the electorate, according to a February poll which put Santos in the lead with 34.7 percent. Earlier this month Avella denounced death threats she said had been made against her.

“This act is an attack on the peace process in Colombia and the right to exercise political opposition. Without guarantees for the opposition there is no democracy,” said the head of the Patriotic Union, Omer Calderon.

Police did not say who may have been responsible. Santos said on Twitter that he had given orders for the candidate to be protected by whatever means necessary and for an investigation to be carried out.

The government-supplied armoured car in which Avella was travelling with Carlos Lozano, a candidate for the Senate, was not hit, but another vehicle in the convoy had 14 bullet marks, the party said in a statement.

Avella lived in exile for several years after surviving an attack in 1996 by paramilitaries who fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the vehicle she was travelling in on a highway crossing the capital city, Bogota.

Santos took the bold but controversial step of engaging in peace talks with the FARC in 2012 to end a five-decade conflict that has killed more than 200 000. Though many Colombians back the process, it has upset some voters and enraged right-wing politicians who reject negotiating with “terrorists”.

Santos said more than 1 000 of his personal emails had been illegally intercepted and the accounts of several family members had also been hacked. The centre-right president called it a “serious criminal act” aimed at tarnishing his image during the election campaign.

The hacking “coincides with the start of the electoral campaign and suggests political motives which must be investigated to find and punish those responsible”, he said in a statement.

Without naming names, Santos said those who “persist in using a dirty war in their struggle for power” might leak his intercepted emails during the electoral campaign.

Earlier this month, news weekly Semana reported that rogue military intelligence members had spied on the text messages and emails of government negotiators at the peace talks in Cuba. The FARC said its delegates had also been spied on.

The same magazine published recordings a week ago of phone calls by senior members of the military which it said revealed some were receiving huge kickbacks on procurement contracts.

The head of the armed forces, General Leonardo Barrero, was dismissed last week after he was heard in one of the recordings making disparaging remarks about prosecutors in a phone call with an imprisoned officer they are investigating over links to extra-judicial killings by the military.

Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has announced the creation of an inter-ministerial commission to reinforce protection against cyber-espionage with assistance from experts from Spain, Britain, South Korea and Israel.


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