Colombian soldiers clown around in roving circus

The amateur trapeze artist on the not very high wire juggles while trying to keep his balance, but fails and falls. A crowd of hundreds of villagers claps anyway. After all, he is just a soldier -- part of a roving Colombian circus made up of military personnel. The circus is part of efforts to ease local fears about Colombian armed forces after decades of conflict -- a brutal civil war with leftist rebels that has lasted half a century and left thousands dead. The troupe, with its blue and yellow big top, is called Circo Colombia and made up of 17 active and retired soldiers who travel to remote villages. On this particular day, the circus has pulled into Tibirita, a village of 3,000 people in central Colombia. For a day, the performers trade military fatigues for the make-up of clowns and the costumes of acrobats to try to cleanse the army's somewhat tarnished image. The trapeze artist, retired from the army, is a tall, burly guy named Leonardo Santamaria. He entertains from a wire five meters (17 feet) off the ground. After his fall, and the applause, he states the obvious. "We are not professional performers," he tells AFP. "People know that soldiers are trained to do other things." Several of the circus members have patrolled areas where Colombia's two main guerrilla armies -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with some 7,000 fighters, and the National Liberation Army (ELN), with 2,500 -- still operate. - Soldiers 'very nice' - Indeed, under the big top, the soldiers undertake other tasks: juggling, balancing acts, and even singing. Younger military personnel, who are completing mandatory service requirements, still wear their dress fatigues as they breathe fire or jump over flaming poles. "I spend the day rehearsing," Santamaria says. "I am an acrobat." "The circus is my life," says soldier Daniel Borja, who morphs into a clown called Cascabelin, one of the troupe's star attractions. He has a red nose and pot belly and get loads of laughs. Some of those in the crowd were bussed in by Tiribita's city hall from remote spots. They are initially a bit startled at what they see, but the fighters-turned-artists are used to the wariness. "At first they are scared, naturally. Colombian soldiers and a circus... what is this all about?" said Sergeant Oscar Francisco Yela, the commander of Circo Colombia. For 20 years, the circus has been roving areas where the army might usually instill fear, and this tour is particularly timely. In recent weeks, the army has been mired in a string of scandals, including allegations of corruption and extrajudicial killings. "There are a lot of Colombian soldiers, but we are the good ones," Yela says. This day, the reviews are good. "The soldiers are very nice. I like their friendliness and attention," says Rosa Aldana, a 40-year-old peasant wearing a poncho. When the show ends, some of the audience members come up on stage. Everybody applauds. The emcee recites a pray for soldiers fallen in combat, as the lights go out. Back in the village, other soldiers are on patrol, toting rifles.