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Colombian rebels thwart visit

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BALSILLAS, Colombia — Guerrillas blocked a protest caravan led by Colombia's leading presidential candidate Saturday, forcing him to call off his planned march into a rebel-controlled region to demand peace concessions.

Guerrillas from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, barred the 112-bus caravan Saturday morning in Balsillas, 124 miles south of the capital, Bogota. They told Horacio Serpa and thousands of his supporters that the road ahead was mined and ordered him to turn back.

The march — aimed at pressuring the FARC to make peace concessions and halt human rights abuses inside its safe haven — had been brought to a halt briefly earlier in the morning when metal spikes placed on the road by presumed FARC members punctured tires.

Serpa announced that he was calling off the march on San Vicente, the main town inside the FARC's Switzerland-sized stronghold, where he had planned to arrive Saturday afternoon and deliver a speech.

The government of President Andres Pastrana ceded the zone to the rebels as a safe haven in 1998 to launch peace negotiations. But the talks have yielded few results, and for many Colombians, the FARC-controlled area has become a symbol of lawlessness.

"It's not Horacio Serpa who has lost," the candidate, who has been leading polls ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May, told reporters. "What has lost is democracy."

The 16,000-strong FARC had opposed the march from the start.

Before Serpa and his caravan of supporters set off from Bogota on Friday, guerrillas announced they had blocked a road along the route due to fighting with troops in the area.

An army spokesman in Bogota confirmed that clashes were going in the vicinity of the caravan Saturday.

But the FARC had also issued a veiled threat, saying it could not guarantee Serpa's safety if he made the trip.

Rebel chief Manuel Marulanda has accused Serpa of using the march to gain votes in next May's election by taking a tough stance against the guerrillas. Colombia's public has grown disillusioned with the peace talks and fed up with guerrillas attacks and kidnappings.

The rebel roadblocks and sabotage highlight the lack of government control in rural areas.

Some 30 FARC fighters in northern Colombia on Friday set up a road block and kidnapped 15 people from their cars on Saturday, the army said. Six hostages were later freed during an army rescue operation.

The mass abduction followed the rebel kidnapping in northern Colombia on Monday of former Culture Minister Consuelo Araujo.

The FARC and a smaller leftist rebel army have been waging a 37-year war against the government and a rival right-wing paramilitary army. The civil conflict kills at least 3,000 people every year.

Pastrana launched peace talks with the FARC in 1999, but the slow-going negotiations inside the demilitarized zone have plodded. U.S. officials have denounced rebel abuses inside the safe haven but have so far refrained from pressuring Pastrana to take back the zone. Pastrana is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term as president.