Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Violence erupts at Caracas rally held by Chavez opposers

REUTERS , CARACAS, VENEZUELA

One person was killed and 22 wounded by gunfire that broke out during a rally held by foes of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in a pro-Chavez district of Caracas on Saturday, officials said.

Three of the wounded were National Guard soldiers whose patrol came under fire in west Caracas as they took up positions in a security operation to try to prevent violence at the opposition protest.

"There are 22 people wounded by bullets and one killed," Caracas Fire Services Chief Rodolfo Briceno said.

Government and opposition representatives blamed each other for the shootings.

Gunfire erupted as several hundred supporters of the opposition Democratic Action Party held a rally in a narrow street in Catia, a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood that is a bastion of support for populist Chavez.

"In the middle of the event, there were several volleys of bullets, but the rally went on," Democratic Action leader Henry Ramos told reporters.

"We're not afraid. This country doesn't just belong to Chavez supporters, but to all Venezuelans," demonstrator Ana Maria Colmenares said.

Chavez's opponents accuse him of ruling like a dictator and of trying to install Cuban-style communism in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Witnesses said some of the shots appeared to come from side streets where groups of Chavez supporters had gathered to shout insults at the opposition protesters.

The violence broke out a day after government and opposition negotiators announced they had agreed to a political pact to hold a referendum on Chavez's rule after Aug. 19.

The agreement aims to end months of often violent conflict in Venezuela over Chavez's presidency. He was elected in late 1998 and survived a brief coup last year.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel accused leaders of the opposition rally of deliberately provoking the violence. "This was a provocation, seeking deaths and injuries," he said.

Ramos denied this. "The death and the injuries are the responsibility of the government," he said.

In scenes of confusion and tension in Catia, the demonstrators, including some women and children, ran in panic as volleys of shots rang out. A journalist at the scene saw one man, a motorcyclist, lying bleeding from a bullet wound in his neck.

Authorities had deployed 2,000 police and troops around the small rally in west Caracas, an area of sprawling hilltop slum neighborhoods which is dominated by Chavez supporters.

In the maze of narrow streets and jumbled houses, often crowded with people, it was difficult for police to determine where shots were coming from.

National Guard Caracas region commander General Marcos Rojas said that gunmen blocked a street with buses and ambushed three of his men, a sergeant and two soldiers, shooting all three. He said the attackers were members of the radical opposition party Red Flag.

It was not clear whether the violence might affect the formal signing of the referendum pact between the government and opposition.

The signing is scheduled to take place next week in Caracas in the presence of Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria.

At least 50 people have been killed, almost all by gunfire, in clashes between followers and foes of Chavez over the last 18 months. Several hundred more have been wounded.

Chavez, who has said he is willing to submit to the recall referendum allowed under the constitution, was attending a summit of Latin American presidents in Peru.

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