Colombia braces for assassination attempt at Uribe inauguration

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COLOMBIA’S rebels may have failed to assassinate conservative Alvaro Uribe as he campaigned for the presidency, but they have not given up their efforts to murder him - intelligence officials said they believe they are preparing for a wave of violence as he takes office tomorrow.

The guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have already heralded the approach of the ceremony by stepping up their campaign of urban terror, detonating five bombs in the country’s major cities in the last 24 hours.

The DAS, the Colombian secret police, claims to have uncovered a plot to wreck the inauguration and has arrested six members of the FARC’s urban militia.

"These people, according to intelligence reports, are from the FARC’s special forces, who were seeking to carry out terrorist attacks in the capital with the aim of derailing the presidential inauguration of Alvaro Uribe," said Javier Ramos, the DAS head of public security. The six were captured with guns with telescopic sights, grenades and ammunition, he said.

The secret police say there is a plan to use mortars against the presidential palace, either as Mr Uribe lands in a helicopter or during the inauguration ceremony itself. "We know of a direct order from the secretariat [ruling body] of the FARC to attack the presidential helicopter," said Mr Ramos.

The security forces are taking the threats seriously, as is the United States, which will be enhancing security by providing surveillance aircraft to fly over the capital tomorrow.

"In response to a government of Colombia request, the US government is providing a P3 aircraft from the US customs service during the inauguration, to help alert Colombian officials to any violation of the no-fly zone surrounding Bogot," the US embassy said.

The DAS last week revealed that the FARC planned to fly a plane packed with explosives into the presidential palace, in imitation of the 11 September attacks in the US.

In the three major cities in Colombia, the capital Bogot, Medelln and Cali, security forces plan to seal urban centres, in what is known in Cali as "Operation Padlock".

Mr Uribe has been a FARC target since he was governor of the war-torn province of Antioquia in the mid 1990s. During his governorship the FARC were driven from the rich banana-growing area of Urab by right-wing paramilitaries allegedly working with the security forces.

In April this year the FARC set off a car bomb along the route Mr Uribe was travelling whilst on campaign in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla. Mr Uribe was saved by the armour on his bullet-proof jeep, but five passers-by were killed and 13 wounded in the attempt.

Mr Uribe won the presidency with a promise to get tough on the FARC and has secured backing from the US by presenting himself as the newest and keenest recruit in the war on terrorism as three of Colombia’s warring factions are on the US terrorism list.

The US has increased military aid to the Colombia, voting in an emergency supplement of 280 million, and lifted restrictions on a billion pounds worth of military aid granted by President Bill Clinton, which was for use only in the war on drugs.

The US is planning another 320 million for Colombia in the next fiscal year. But all of this has not daunted the FARC; instead, it seems set to provoke them to even greater heights of violence, particularly urban attacks.

Three alleged IRA men are languishing in prison in Bogot at the moment awaiting trial for training the FARC in explosives and urban terrorism. The FARC have marked the entry into office of the last two presidents with frenzied attacks. Mr Uribe is for them the most hated president yet, and the rebels will seek to show that they cannot be intimidated by his tough talk and US backing.

Even if they cannot wreck tomorrow’s inauguration, they have vowed to make the Uribe administration’s time in office the bloodiest to date.