- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s elections council ruled yesterday that the opposition lacked enough signatures to force a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez.

Rioting over the issue spread from Caracas to other cities.

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

But council President Francisco Carrasquero announced that just 1.83 million signatures were valid. An additional 876,016 signatures may be valid if citizens confirm they indeed signed the petition, Mr. Carrasquero said.

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

Venezuela’s opposition asserts that such a monumental task, involving hundreds of thousands of citizens, could indefinitely postpone the referendum or derail it entirely.

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.

Protests were reported in at least 10 other cities, including the industrial centers of Valencia and Barquisimeto and the western oil city of Maracaibo.

Mr. Chavez’s foes have been blocking traffic throughout Caracas since Friday to protest what they view as a government plot to derail the referendum — their last chance of legally ousting Mr. Chavez before the next elections in 2006.

At least one person has been killed and 60 wounded since Friday. Dozens have been arrested.

Venezuelans had been waiting since Sunday for the council to release its findings.

The opposition tried to dislodge Mr. Chavez, a populist leftist first elected in 1998, through a short-lived coup in 2002 and a general strike that dragged on for two months last year.

Prodded by the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center, the government and the opposition agreed last May on ground rules for an eventual recall referendum.

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