- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela Supporters of President Hugo Chavez clashed with opposition marchers outside Caracas yesterday, and one person was killed when shots were fired into the crowd.
The confrontation began when Mr. Chavez's supporters tossed bottles and rocks at the marchers in the town of Charallave, Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza said. He said rioters set fire to vehicles and a stage that had been set up for opposition speakers.
Police were trying to keep the two sides apart when gunfire erupted. It wasn't clear who fired the shots, though Mr. Mendoza said police fired back.
A 29-year-old man was killed, and 12 were wounded by gunfire, said Lt. Col. Guido Bolivar, an officer of the Miranda state fire department. The rest were hurt by flying objects, Col. Bolivar said.
It wasn't known if the wounded were hit in the initial hail of gunfire or by police.
The violence heightened tensions surrounding a 50-day-old opposition strike intended to oust Mr. Chavez. Six persons have died in protests since the strike started Dec. 2.
The unrest coincided with a visit from former President Jimmy Carter, who was trying to jump-start negotiations between the government and opposition.
Mr. Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, was to meet with Mr. Chavez and attend negotiations sponsored the Organization of American States. Mr. Carter's Atlanta-based Carter Center is also sponsoring talks. He arrived in Venezuela on Wednesday for a fishing trip.
In his weekly television call-in show Sunday, Mr. Chavez warned that the government may walk out of negotiations with strike leaders. He accused them of using unconstitutional means to seek his ouster.
"We are carefully evaluating the possibility that our representatives will leave the [negotiating] table," Mr. Chavez said. "We don't talk with terrorists."
Political parties, business leaders and labor unions called the general strike to pressure Mr. Chavez to resign or call early elections. Election authorities agreed to organize a Feb. 2 referendum after accepting an opposition petition.
Mr. Chavez says opponents must wait until August, midway through his six-year term, for a potential recall referendum. A Supreme Court ruling on the matter is pending.
The strike has caused severe shortages in gasoline and foods such as flour, milk, bottled water and soft drinks.
Production is down to 800,000 barrels a day, according to the government, though opposition leaders put the figure at 600,000 barrels. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest petroleum-exporting nation and produced 3 million barrels a day before the strike.
The president of Venezuela's oil monopoly, a chief Chavez ally, urged workers to return to work yesterday.
"I urge you as citizens, appealing to whatever reserves of rationality there may be, to stop these activities, stop this campaign that affects the whole country," Ali Rodriguez, president of Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), said in an interview on state television station Venezolana de Television. "The objectives you have set are unreachable."
Mr. Chavez has fired more than 1,000 white-collar workers at PDVSA. He has the support of Venezuela's military and has sent troops to seize striking oil tankers, keep strikers out of oil installations and commandeer gasoline-delivery trucks.


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