- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela The police here say they're up against a new adversary armed supporters of their own president, Hugo Chavez.

Recriminations are still flying almost two months after police responding to a street protest ran into a carefully planned ambush.

Pinned down by snipers, officers radioed desperately for help as high-caliber bullets pierced their armor-plated water cannon. Three officers and four civilians were wounded.

The clash has come at a delicate time Mr. Chavez is struggling to defend his legitimacy against strengthening opposition, and Caracas is trying to implement an anti-crime plan with input from former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton.

The Aug. 2 incident on Sucre Avenue has sharpened the question of who polices the capital: Mr. Chavez's supporters or Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, who supervises the Metropolitan Police.

Mr. Chavez accuses Mr. Pena of dispatching police to brutally suppress protests by his supporters. Mr. Pena says Mr. Chavez is trying to seize one of the few institutions not under his control.

A gang calling itself the Carapaica Revolutionary Movement took responsibility for the attack. Masked and holding automatic rifles, they claimed at a news conference that they attacked because police routinely use violence against pro-Chavez protests.

Mr. Chavez condemned the shooting and denied having ties to the group. His allies suggested the attackers were Chavez foes trying to provoke upheaval like the April 12-14 coup that temporarily ousted the president and left dozens dead.

The mayor said the attack proved that Mr. Chavez's supporters have created an urban guerrilla movement in a city already rife with crime.

Police want to stay out of the dispute, insists Metropolitan Police Chief Henry Vivas. "In my 30 years as a police officer, I have never seen anything like this," he said in an interview. "It was a well-trained group."

Chief Vivas says police are frustrated that federal investigators haven't produced suspects and he threatened to do the job himself. "If the police are attacked again, I'm going to capture the perpetrators. And I'm going to throw them in jail."

The 1,400-strong force has added security around its stations, and approaches protest scenes more cautiously, posting officers on surrounding rooftops first.

"The officers who have to drive the water cannon trucks are terrified," said Cmdr. Freddy Torres, the department's legal consultant. "We feel abandoned by the central government."

On one occasion after the ambush, police avoided a pro-Chavez demonstration altogether, leaving the National Guard to deal with hundreds protesting a Supreme Court ruling that absolved four military officers accused of leading the April coup.

A shootout broke out anyway, and three guardsmen were hurt.

"That demonstrated that there are people who don't respect anyone," Chief Vivas said. "That demonstrated that the Metropolitan Police is not the one provoking public disorder."

Mr. Chavez and Mr. Pena have sparred before over the police. At least six officers are under investigation in the shooting of Chavez supporters during protests that preceded the coup. Mr. Chavez says police targeted protesters; Cmdr. Torres said pro-Chavez gunmen fired first.

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