- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

From combined dispatches

CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuela's army chief called the opposition closure of the oil industry "sabotage," as police fired rubber bullets into apartment buildings and tear gas into the streets yesterday, after protesters demanding President Hugo Chavez resign blocked highways and roads and threw stones at police in several Caracas neighborhoods.

Gen. Julio Garcia Montoya said yesterday in an address broadcast to the nation, that a strike paralyzing the oil sector amounted to sabotage, and he indicated his troops could counter it.

"The army is willing to use its full capability to prevent the success of this gamble for a economic and social collapse of the nation," he said in an address to the nation.

He made it clear the troops he commands were firmly behind Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper whose government faces intense pressure from a 15-day-old general strike that severely affected state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela.

"It is an aggression against the survival of the state," he said, adding that the strike was "an attack on the vital interests of the nation," and suggesting it was unconstitutional.

With the world's fifth-largest petroleum producer in crisis, oil prices soared on international markets. Crude oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange topped $30 yesterday for the first time in two months.

Yesterday, enraged Chavez backers tried to break an opposition push to paralyze Caracas as the metropolitan area of 11 million people spun toward lawlessness.

Reuters reported that soldiers with assault rifles lined up outside a police station occupied by the army as opposition marchers demanded the soldiers leave. As the crowd grew, the soldiers retreated and police in riot gear fanned out to keep hundreds of opposition and Chavez supporters apart. Mr. Chavez ordered the army takeover of the city's police precincts in November.

The White House again urged Mr. Chavez to call early elections, but seemed to modify its stance by stressing as Mr. Chavez has insisted that those elections should come only under the rules spelled out in Venezuela's constitution.

Mr. Chavez has rejected demands for his resignation and early elections, saying the constitution does not allow them until August, the midway point in his current six-year term.

He has ignored courts that ordered him to give back seized gasoline trucks and return control of the police department to Caracas' opposition mayor. Mr. Chavez told military commanders that he not the courts gives their orders.

"We can't let an opposition-aligned judge prevent a military unit from carrying out orders from the president," Mr. Chavez said Sunday.

Using the slogan "Block your block," the frustrated opposition started its "takeover of Caracas" after a two-week strike devastated the economy but only strengthened Mr. Chavez's resolve.

Skirmishes between Chavez supporters and opponents erupted in several parts of Caracas and other cities as outnumbered police officers and national guard troops desperately tried to keep them apart.

"You can't throw rocks at police," one officer pleaded with residents of a central neighborhood.

Above him, opposition supporters leaned out of windows banging pots and pans in protest. Officers fired rubber bullets at the buildings, breaking windows and sending residents scurrying for cover. The sting of tear gas filled the air.

The opposition also blocked major highways and arteries in several spots. Protesters tried to choke off traffic with rocks, tree branches and flaming tires.

"We're not leaving," said Ana Reina, a 58-year-old retired teacher, one of about 1,000 opposition supporters on Prados del Este highway. "The police never come when there's a mugging or a robbery just when they want to coerce us. But we're not afraid."

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