Violence flares at Venezuelan protest


Opposition protesters run from tear gas near Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday. Police and soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to avoid clashes between the opposition and Chavez supporters after an opposition march arrived to the military base.

(AP Photo/Cesar Lombardi, El Globo)
Published: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 1:47 a.m.
CARACAS, Venezuela - Troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas Friday to keep opponents and rock-throwing supporters of President Hugo Chavez from clashing outside the Venezuelan capital's military headquarters.
Eighty people were hurt, including three who suffered gunshot wounds.
The violence erupted when several hundred supporters of the president threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at thousands of opposition demonstrators and police in Los Proceres park, outside Caracas' Fort Tiuna.
The anti-Chavez marchers were demanding the release of a dissident national guard general and urging the military to support a 5-week-old strike aimed at forcing Chavez to hold a nonbinding vote on his leadership.
Stinging white clouds of tear gas drifted through the district's tree-lined avenues as guardsmen fired tear gas and buckshot near the base, the armed forces' main headquarters.
Crouching behind an ambulance, marcher Maria Arismendy poured water over the face of her small dog while he howled. "We're peaceful, but you see what they do," she said through her tears. "We just want our country back. Chavez has ruined everything."
Marchers taunted soldiers and police with chants of "murderers" in between doses of tear gas.
The unrest rekindled hours later, with protesters and police ducking behind trees and lying flat on the streets as gunfire rang out.
Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said three people were injured by gunshots and 77 people were hurt by rocks or suffered asphyxiation from the tear gas. It was unclear who had fired the gunshots.
Among the injured were seven police officers, said Police Chief Henry Vivas. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said 11 people were hurt in a stampede.
Col. Jose Rodrigo Pantoja, commander of the military police, said marchers weren't authorized to enter the plaza, which the government has declared a security zone - one of eight such zones in Caracas. He said soldiers acted only after the opposition march reached the plaza.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel blamed "irresponsible" march leaders for trying to enter the security zone. "They tried to break through a security barrier and that produced the clashes with security forces," Rangel told The Associated Press.
Thousands of people milled about in neighborhoods near Los Proceres as guardsmen clashed with jeering Chavez supporters, some of whom ran through a cloud of tear gas carrying an injured colleague on a stretcher.
Opposition protesters demanded the release of Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, one of about 100 officers who revolted last fall. Martinez was arrested Dec. 30 without a required court order. A judge ordered his release, but he remains under house arrest.
Venezuela's opposition called a strike Dec. 2 to pressure Chavez to call a referendum on his presidency. Venezuela's constitution permits a possible binding vote halfway into Chavez's six-year term, or next August. Chavez rejects an early nonbinding ballot.
Opposition leaders blame Chavez's leftist policies for deep economic troubles and accuse him of grabbing power. The president counters the opposition wants to stage an "economic coup."
The strike has paralyzed oil production in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a top supplier to the United States. The strike has helped push international oil prices above $30 per barrel. Oil workers have defied a back-to-work order by the Supreme Court.
Talks mediated by the Organization of American States have made little progress.
The strike has forced Chavez to seek food and fuel abroad. On Friday, he discussed aid for Venezuela with an Algerian diplomat. He also met with OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria on the deadlocked negotiations.
Chavez said fellow Latin American leaders have told him "not to cede to (opposition) blackmail" because it could promote "destabilization campaigns" in the region. "The force of law is going to be imposed here," Chavez said, adding he saw no immediate need to declare martial law.
Chavez said Thursdsay that he would support diplomatic efforts by a "Group of Nation Friends" to help resolve the crisis.
Ali Rodriguez, president of the state-owned oil company, told the state news agency Venpres the government has purchased 250,000 barrels of gasoline from a U.S. firm and 600,000 more barrels from Russia. Venezuela also has received gasoline shipments from Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago.
The government is trying to negotiate long-term gasoline import deals with those countries, as well as Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico, to meet the domestic demand of 400,000 barrels a day.
Analysts say importing gasoline will force Chavez' government to make budget cuts and slash social spending - a move that could weaken his support among the poor, his power base.

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