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Dozens hurt as troops break up opposition protest
Posted: Sunday, January 5, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela: Troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas yesterday to keep opponents and rock-throwing supporters of President Hugo Chavez from clashing outside the Venezuelan capitalís military headquarters. At least 23 people were injured.

The violence erupted when several hundred supporters of the president threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at thousands of opposition marchers 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. The unrest rekindled hours later, with protesters and police ducking behind trees and lying flat on the streets as gunfire rang out.

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. Defence Minister Jose Luis Prieto had warned against the demonstration.

Thousands of people milled about in neighbourhoods 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 Marti-nez, one of about 100 officers who revolted last fall. Martinez was arrested December 30 without a required court order. A judge ordered his release, but he remains under house arrest.

Talks mediated by the Organization of American States have made little progress. The strike has forced Chavez to seek food and fuel abroad. Yesterday, he discussed aid for Venezuela with an Algerian diplomat. He also met with OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria on the deadlocked negotiations.

Chavez vowed to defeat the strike and said he had the full support of Latin American governments. He urged the opposition to abandon the work stoppage and spend the next seven months preparing for a binding referendum.

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 US 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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