Sun, Jan 05, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Chavez threatening martial law

THE BOILING POINT?The Venezuelan president is facing mounting pressure from opposition leaders who are masterminding an oil strike that has crippled the country

AP , CARACAS

An opposition protester raises a cross toward tear gas fired by the National Guard during clashes near Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday. Police and soldiers fired tear gas to avoid clashes between the opposition and supporters of President Hugo Chavez after an opposition march arrived at the military base.

PHOTO: AP

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he would consider imposing martial law to quell Venezuela's internal crisis after two people died and dozens more were wounded during a march aimed at ousting him.

Gunfire erupted Friday during an opposition march on the headquarters of the armed forces, Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said. Two people died of gunshot wounds and at least 78 others were injured -- five of them by gunshots.

It was unclear who fired on the demonstrators, who faced hundreds of Chavez supporters throwing rocks and bottles at security forces trying to keep the two sides apart.

"I am obligated to protect the people. I am obligated to protect public order," Chavez said. "If they force me to [decree martial law], I'd have to do it."

But, he added, "So far, despite everything that has happened, there has been no need to apply any exceptional measures."

Chavez made his comments after meeting with Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, who is trying to negotiate a settlement between the government and the opposition.

Daily street protests by Chavez opponents and supporters have been common since the opposition declared a general strike on Dec. 2 in an attempt to oust the left-leaning Chavez.

Friday's anti-Chavez march deteriorated into a melee after the national guard fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a few hundred Chavez supporters, who were throwing rocks at security forces while waiting for marchers to arrive at a park near the military base entrance.

When marchers arrived and moved toward a security line, guardsmen fired more tear gas into the crowd. Shots then rang out.

The protest lasted several hours in the park, under a veil of tear gas, before marchers dispersed.

Opposition marcher Maria Arismendy crouched behind an ambulance, pouring water over the face of her small, howling dog.

"We're peaceful, but you see what they do," Arismendy said through her own tears. "We just want our country back. Chavez has ruined everything."

The injured included seven police officers, Police Chief Henry Vivas said. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said 11 people were hurt in a stampede.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel on Friday blamed "irresponsible" march leaders for trying to enter the park, which the government has declared a security zone -- one of eight such zones in Caracas.

"They tried to break through a security barrier and that produced the clashes with security forces," Rangel told reporters.

The last time people were killed during a political demonstration was Dec. 6, when three people were gunned down at an opposition rally. Dozens were killed in April rioting that sparked a coup. Chavez regained power after two days.

"The force of law is going to be imposed here," Chavez said Friday.

But opposition leader Hermann Escarra warned, in comments broadcast on Globovision television, that Venezuelans would hold Chavez responsible if martial law was declared and civil rights were violated.

The marchers demanded the release of General Carlos Alfonso Martinez, one of about 100 officers who revolted last fall. Martinez was arrested Dec. 30 without a required court order and remains under house arrest even though a judge ordered his release.

The opposition accuses Chavez of causing a deep recession here -- unemployment has reached 17 percent and inflation 30 percent under his rule. The opposition also charges Chavez with trying to impose a leftist, authoritarian government.

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