One person was killed and dozens were injured in bloody clashes between foes and followers of President Hugo Chavez. The violence overshadowed efforts by former US president Jimmy Carter to resolve Venezuela's crisis and end a strike that has crippled the world's fifth largest oil exporter.
One man died and 27 were injured Monday when gunfire erupted as Chavez supporters confronted opposition marchers in Charallave, a town 30km south of Caracas. Both sides threw rocks, bottles and sticks at each other as police struggled to keep them apart, but it was not clear who fired the live ammunition.
Opposition leaders blamed the violence on the government, saying Chavez sympathizers attacked their march.
"The only one responsible is the government," said Juan Fernandez, an executive fired from the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, for leading the strike.
Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, attended negotiations Monday between the government and opposition and met separately with Chavez and strike leaders. His Atlanta-based Carter Center, the Organization of American States and the UN are sponsoring the talks.
Business leaders, labor unions and opposition parties launched the strike on Dec. 2 to demand that Chavez resign or call early elections. After two months of negotiations, the two sides seem no closer to an agreement.
Chavez threatened Sunday to walk out of talks, accusing the opposition of trying to topple him.
Strike leader Carlos Ortega said opponents would continue negotiating, but called Chavez undemocratic and said he would never accept a vote on his rule.
Ortega, president of the 1-million member Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, said Gaviria and Carter should "convince themselves once and for all that we are dealing with a regime that is not democratic, and that as long as Chavez stays in power there is no possibility of holding elections."
The National Elections Council, accepting an opposition petition, agreed to organize a Feb. 2 nonbinding referendum asking citizens whether Chavez should step down.
Chavez says the vote would be unconstitutional and his supporters have challenged it in the Supreme Court.
The strike has slashed Venezuela's oil production by more than two-thirds and caused shortages of gasoline, food and drinking water. It has cost Venezuela US$4 billion, according to the government, and contributed to the plummeting of the bolivar currency.
Six countries -- Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the US -- began an initiative called "Friends of Venezuela" to help end the crisis. Chavez warned the six nations his government will not allow interference in domestic affairs.
Chavez was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000 on promises to redistribute the country's vast oil wealth among the poor majority.
His opponents accuse him of steering the economy into recession with leftist policies and running roughshod over democratic institutions.