- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Top military commanders rebelled against President Hugo Chavez last night after police and armed Chavez supporters fired upon a march by 150,000 opposition protesters near the presidential palace. At least 12 persons were killed and as many as 110 wounded in that protest, officials said.
There were news reports that Mr. Chavez was preparing to leave the country, and three executive jets were seen preparing for takeoff at La Carlota military air base, which usually closes after dark.
Televised reports that Mr. Chavez and his family were leaving could not be confirmed. A Chavez spokeswoman denied the reports, saying the president was meeting with officials at the palace.
Small tanks guarded the palace as caravans of armored troop vehicles patrolled Caracas streets and highways.
A Venezuelan general said the Chavez government had "abandoned its functions" and the South American country was under the control of the armed forces, Reuters news agency reported.
[National Guard Gen. Alberto Camacho Kairuz made the announcement on local television after senior military officers blamed the president for violence during the huge anti-Chavez protest.]
Army Cmdr. Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco ordered all his commanders to join him in rebellion against the Venezuelan president.
"We ask the Venezuelan people's forgiveness for today's events," he said. "Mr. President, I was loyal to the end, but today's deaths cannot be tolerated." More than 40 other high officers joined the rebellion, including Gen. Kairuz, vice minister for citizen security.
The only comment to come out of the Chavez government last night was from Minister of the Presidency Rafael Vargas, who told Agence France-Presse that Mr. Chavez "is now and will always be in the Presidential Palace" and that the conspiracy against him was aborted.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Chavez ordered five private Caracas television stations to close for purportedly abusing freedom of expression by inciting opposition protests that erupted in violence. The stations continued transmitting by satellite, however, and some were able to re-establish their signals intermittently to report on the violence and casualties.
The Organization of American States demanded the restrictions be lifted.
A group of 30 military officers declared themselves in rebellion against Mr. Chavez "for violating democratic principles, guarantees and the human rights of Venezuelans."
"The Constitution obliges us to maintain internal order and avoid more spilling of blood and the destruction of our brave people and their institutions," the officers said in a communique read by Navy Vice Adm. Hector Ramirez.
Earlier, 11 other generals, admirals and commanders of the armed forces declared themselves in rebellion.
None had active commands, palace officials said. But Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, inspector general of the National Guard, condemned the armed pro-Chavez civilian groups known as "Bolivarian Circles" for firing on civilians.
National Guard troops fired tear gas at the front ranks of stick-bearing, rock-throwing marchers to keep them about 100 yards away from the palace and from thousands of Chavez supporters. Tear gas drifted into the presidential compound.
Several shots were fired near the palace, and scuffles with police erupted in several downtown locations. Witnesses said snipers belonging to pro-Chavez street groups fired on crowds from rooftops. Caracas Fire Department Cmdr. Rodolfo Briceno said that snipers fired on ambulance crews as they tried to evacuate the wounded near the palace.
Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, accused government snipers of firing on crowds, especially upon opposition demonstrators. "Chavez has shown his true face," Mr. Pena claimed.Vargas Hospital director Manuel Rojas said at least 12 persons were killed and 96 wounded.
"This is state terrorism. The international community must condemn these killings. This government is criminal," said Ramon Escobar Salon, a former attorney general.
Jorge Tortoza, 45, a photographer with Diario 2001 newspaper, was shot in the face by a man in civilian clothing while he was covering the protest, said reporter Angel Arraez. Mr. Tortoza was in critical condition at Vargas hospital.
Earlier yesterday, as police fought pitched battles with protesters, the Venezuelan president angrily accused the news media of inciting social unrest by exaggerating the size of a general strike this week.
Several shots were fired near the palace, and scuffles with police erupted in several downtown locations. A body lay in a pool of blood next to the presidential palace.
The violence erupted on the third day of a general strike called to support oil executives who want Mr. Chavez to sack new management at state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela. The executives are conducting a work slowdown that has seriously cut production and exports in Venezuela, the No. 3 oil supplier to the United States and the No. 4 oil exporter in the world.
After six weeks of protests, Mr. Chavez fired seven more executives Sunday and sent 12 others into early retirement.
The 950,000-barrel-per-day Paraguana refinery, one of the world's largest, ran at less than 50 percent capacity, and the loading of tankers proceeded slowly, with at least 20 vessels anchored at main ports. The 130,000-barrel-per-day El Palito refinery will not reach full capacity until the weekend.
Industry officials said gasoline supplies to major Venezuelan cities could be threatened if the slowdown continues.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency said Venezuela's crisis and political uncertainties in the Middle East could upset the oil market.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has said it has no plans to pump more oil to replace supplies being withheld by Iraq to protest Israel's incursion against Palestinians.
The general strike was called Tuesday by the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation, or CTV, and Fedecamaras, Venezuela's largest business group. Yesterday, the groups demanded that Mr. Chavez resign.
"There is no accommodation possible. What we're seeking is Chavez's resignation," said Gregorio Rojas, Fedecamaras' treasurer.
He said the opposition was trying to persuade the armed forces to force Mr. Chavez to step down and establish a "transition government" that would call new elections.

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