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Uribe torchbearer, maverick reformer in tight race in Colombia

| Monday, May 31, 2010

BOGOTA, Colombia — An ex-defense minister promising to build on President Alvaro Uribe's security gains and a maverick outsider pledging clean government were favored Sunday as Colombians voted for a new leader.

Although generally peaceful, Sunday was marked by 17 firefights with leftist rebels that claimed the lives of at least three soldiers, a potent reminder that Colombia's half-century-old conflict is far from resolved.

Juan Manuel Santos, a Cabinet minister in three administrations and grandnephew of a president, was in a statistical dead heat in pre-election polls with Antanas Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former two-time Bogota mayor running on the Green Party slate.

The two led a field of nine. If no candidate wins a simple majority, the top two vote-getters will meet in a June 20 runoff.

Combat was reported in at least seven regions, most of them rural coca-growing centers in the south and west but also in Guajira state in the northeast, where one of the soldiers was killed. All three combat deaths were blamed by the government on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC.

The guerrillas had called on Colombians to boycott Sunday's vote but did not order people to stay off the roads, as they have done during elections in some more isolated provinces.

Santos, 58, a first cousin of the outgoing vice president, bills himself as a continuation of Uribe's hugely popular U.S.-backed military buildup that has sharply curtailed kidnappings and murders, though the homicide rate rose last year to 39.3 per 100,000 from 34.3 in 2008.

Mockus, also 58, is a mathematician, philosopher and former National University rector who says he'll be tough on the FARC. Though careful not to criticize Uribe, he has expressed dismay at the battery of scandals that have plagued the outgoing president, such as domestic spying, extrajudicial killings by soldiers and the awarding of agricultural subsidies to political cronies. Mockus also advocates raising taxes, which Santos opposes.

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