- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

The father of an 18-year-old boy killed during an anti-government protest in Venezuela on April 11 is asking for an international investigation of whether President Hugo Chavez had a role in the attack that killed 19 demonstrators.

"We were ambushed," said Mohamad Merhi, the father of Jesus Merhi, who was killed by a sniper's shot to the head. "There was a rain of bullets, and there I lost my son. I saw blood all over the streets."

Mr. Merhi is in Washington representing a group of families who lost relatives in the protest. Armed with photos and videotape that show uniformed government officials firing into the crowd of protesters, Mr. Merhi is asking the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate.

"I've met with folks on both sides, and when both sides of the confrontation are complaining that they cannot get the truth, perhaps there is a role for the OAS in an independent inquiry into what happened," said Roger Noriega, U.S. ambassador to the OAS.

Mr. Noriega said the OAS recently finished a similar investigation in Haiti.

"There were almost a million people at that march. Everyone had camcorders and cameras with pictures of public officials and national guard members shooting into the crowd," said Alfredo Romero Mendoza, a Venezuelan lawyer, who represents the families pushing for the investigation.

"Maybe the president was just negligent, but now he is covering up for the people who were shooting," Mr. Romero said.

The Venezuelan Embassy had no comment on the group's campaign.

On April 11 nearly 1 million gathered in Caracas to protest Mr. Chavez's policies, which they claimed were turning the country into a totalitarian state.

"We felt the government was leading us into a communist regime," said Mr. Merhi, who said he has been attacked twice by Chavez supporters since he began calling for the investigation into his son's death.

According to Mr. Merhi, the protesters walked almost eight miles, without incident. Mr. Merhi described the atmosphere of the march toward the president's home as festive and peaceful, with flags waving, whistles, young children, and senior citizens in wheelchairs.

But as the march approached the Presidential Palace, the scene suddenly turned chaotic, with bullets flying. protesters were shot at from all angles, Mr. Merhi said.

That night, under pressure from the military, Mr. Chavez resigned.

Pedro Carmona, a leading Venezuelan businessman, was named interim president a post he held for a 48-hour period during which more than 60 Chavez supporters were killed.

Mr. Carmona's support evaporated, and he stepped down, paving the way for Mr. Chavez's return.

Six months later, Mr. Chavez still faces enormous opposition, and an estimated 1 million anti-Chavez protesters are expected to take to the streets today.

A national strike is planned for later this month.

Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter is in a deep economic recession. Unemployment in the nation of 24 million is at 16 percent, while inflation is at 32 percent and rising.

The Venezuelan military has moved tanks and troops into positions around Caracas in preparation for today's march. Also, several anti-Chavez politicians and military officers have been arrested and accused of plotting a coup.

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