Colombia votes in local elections amid peace hopes

Bogota (AFP) - Colombians went to the polls Sunday to elect provincial governors and hundreds of local officials who will have a crucial role in implementing any peace agreement reached with leftist FARC rebels.

No incidents were reported as polls opened around the country at 8:00 am (1300 GMT) amid heavy security. They close at 4:00 pm (2100 GMT).

They were the South American country's first regional elections since the government of President Juan Manuel Santos opened peace talks in Havana with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia nearly three years ago.

Santos hopes to sign a peace agreement by March, ending Latin America's oldest guerrilla war.

"The local and regional authorities who we are going to elect will have a huge responsibility," Santos said, encouraging Colombians to vote.

"If we manage to end the armed conflict in the coming months, they will be held responsible for putting into practice the measures that will allow us a successful transition towards peace."

Colombians will elect 32 provincial governors and legislative bodies, more than 1,100 mayors and municipal councils, and other local leadership posts.

Although 34 million people are eligible to vote, turnout was expected to be no more than 50 percent, in keeping with past trends.

- Key Bogota mayoral vote -

One of the country's most widely watched contests will see a new mayor elected in the capital Bogota, a city of some eight million.

The winner will replace outgoing leftist politician Gustavo Petro, a former rebel with the now defunct M-19 guerrilla group.

As the polls opened, Petro called on Colombians to "vote in peace."

The left has been widely criticized for insecurity and chaotic public transportation in the capital, and risks losing its 12-year grip on the city, which it maintained amid numerous corruption scandals.

Center-right candidate Enrique Penalosa, a former Bogota mayor and ex-presidential candidate, is leading with 26-31 percent of the vote, according to polls.

In Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city with 2.5 million inhabitants, Juan Carlos Velez, a protege of hawkish former president Alvaro Uribe who opposes the peace process, is favored to win.

Colombia's National Electoral Committee said it has registered nearly 150 cases of threats against candidates, while the NGO Electoral Observation Mission reported six candidates murdered and one missing since campaigning began on July 25.

In a sign of the insecurity that has dogged the country, soldier was killed by Colombia's second-largest insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), in Antioquia just before voting started.

The ELN is in preliminary talks on peace negotiations.

But the Ministry of Defense said elections are taking place in a peaceful atmosphere compared to the past, with the FARC observing a unilateral ceasefire since July.

The FARC, which launched a guerrilla war in 1964, has an estimated 7,000 fighters.

One of the biggest obstacles to a peace agreement was removed on September 23, when negotiators agreed on how crimes committed during the conflict would be adjudicated.

Experts hailed the move as a milestone and Santos vowed that a definitive peace deal could be reached within six months.