Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Rioting and street protests spread through Venezuela

DELAYING TACTICS The opposition's efforts to oust President Hugo Chavez was once again thwarted by the elections council, sparking nationwide riots

AP , CARACAS

Street protests erupted after Venezuela's elections council said the opposition lacked enough signatures to force a recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez. Rioting over council delays had spread from Caracas to other cities before the decision and intensified immediately afterward.

Chavez opponents say they submitted more than 3.4 million signatures. Some 2.4 million are needed for a recall election.

But council president Francisco Carrasquero announced on Tuesday that just 1.83 million signatures were valid. Another 876,016 signatures may be valid -- if citizens confirm that they indeed signed the petition, Carrasquero said.

The decision triggered demonstrations by citizens banging pots and pans and exploding fireworks throughout the capital, Caracas.

Even before the announcement, protests surged as the opposition anticipated the result. National guard troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through several cities as demonstrators burned tires and hurled rocks and gasoline bombs at soldiers. Sporadic gunfire was heard for a second straight night in Caracas.

Protests were reported in at least seven other cities, including Merida, Puerto La Cruz, Maracay, San Felipe, the industrial centers of Valencia and Barquisimeto and the western oil city of Maracaibo.

Globovision television broadcast footage of several vehicles burning in a parking lot in Caracas' Los Ruices district, where troops fired rubber bullets at protesters who fought back with Molotov cocktails and threw rocks.

In the eastern city of Puerto La Cruz, troops fired rubber bullets at protesters who were chanting "He's leaving, he's Leaving!" in reference to Chavez, Globovision reported.

The violent demonstrations and clashes began to subside as night fell in most of Caracas, where thousands had taken to the streets earlier in the day. Local TV and radio reported that hundreds, and in some cases thousands, had protested in other cities.

Many opposition leaders had said they would not accept a decision requiring voters to confirm their signatures. The measure was allegedly not included in rules established for the verification process, they said.

The council said that voters would have between March 18 and March 22 to report to voting centers to confirm that they indeed had signed the petition.

Venezuela's opposition claims that such a monumental task, involving hundreds of thousands of citizens, would postpone the referendum or derail it entirely.

Protests have forced private banks to shut 20 branch offices, prevented garbage collection, caused traffic jams and hampered transit by emergency vehicles. For a second day, thousands were unable to get to work.

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