- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela A leader of Venezuela's general strike was snatched out of a restaurant by secret police and faces charges of treason and instigating violence for his role in massive anti-government protests that crippled the nation's economy.

Yesterday, the morning after the midnight arrest of Carlos Fernandez, opposition leaders threatened to call a new strike in response.

Strike co-leader Carlos Ortega of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation was ordered to surrender, also on charges of treason and instigating violence, said Magistrate Maikel Jose Moreno.

Mr. Ortega and Mr. Fernandez, president of Venezuela's largest business federation, Fedecamaras, led the two-month strike that started Dec. 2, seeking to oust leftist President Hugo Chavez. The strike ended this month, except in Venezuela's oil sector.

Mr. Chavez accuses the two strike leaders of trying to topple his government.

Eight armed men seized Mr. Fernandez about midnight Wednesday as he was leaving a restaurant in Caracas' trendy Las Mercedes district, his bodyguard, Juan Carlos Fernandez, told Globovision TV.

He said the men, who identified themselves as police agents, fired into the air when patrons tried to stop them from taking Mr. Fernandez.

Mr. Ortega condemned the arrest as a "terrorist act" against Venezuela's opposition, already shaken by the slayings and suspected torture of three dissident Venezuelan soldiers and an opposition activist.

International human rights groups have demanded an investigation into the slayings of the four, whose bodies were found in a suburb of Caracas with hands tied and faces wrapped with tape.

Soldiers Darwin Arguello, Angel Salas and Felix Pinto and opposition activist Zaida Peraza had multiple bullet wounds and showed signs of torture, Raul Yepez, deputy director of Venezuela's forensics police, said.

Mr. Yepez said police had "practically ruled out" political motives. There have been no arrests.

Dissident soldiers supported the nationwide strike, which demanded that Mr. Chavez resign or hold early elections. The strike was lifted Feb. 4 in all areas except the oil industry.

The vice president of the Fedecamaras business association, Albis Munoz, warned of another nationwide strike. She said Mr. Fernandez was seized without a court order and was being held at secret police headquarters.

"Definitely, there will be actions, and very strong actions," Miss Munoz said, adding that Mr. Fernandez was "practically kidnapped."

Opposition leaders called for street protests and appealed to the Organization of American States, the United Nations and the Carter Center, run by former President Jimmy Carter. Those groups have brokered talks here.

OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria issued a statement urging Venezuela's judiciary to treat Mr. Fernandez's case in "strict compliance with the laws and rights guaranteed by the constitution."

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