- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela Troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas yesterday to keep opponents and rock-throwing supporters of President Hugo Chavez from clashing outside the Venezuelan capital's military headquarters. Eighty persons were hurt, including three who suffered gunshot wounds.
The violence erupted when several hundred supporters of the president threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at thousands of opposition marchers and police in Los Proceres park, outside Caracas' Fort Tiuna.
The anti-Chavez marchers were demanding the release of a dissident national guard general and urging the military to support a 5-week-old strike aimed at forcing Mr. Chavez to hold a nonbinding vote on his leadership.
Stinging white clouds of tear gas drifted through the district's tree-lined avenues as guardsmen fired tear gas and buckshot near the base, the armed forces' main headquarters.
Crouching behind an ambulance, marcher Maria Arismendy poured water over the face of her small dog while he howled. "We're peaceful, but you see what they do," she said through her tears. "We just want our country back. Chavez has ruined everything."
Marchers taunted soldiers and police with chants of "murderers" in between doses of tear gas.
The unrest rekindled hours later, with protesters and police ducking behind trees and lying flat on the streets as gunfire rang out.
Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said three persons were injured by gunshots and 77 persons were hurt by rocks or suffered from the tear gas. It was not clear who had fired the gunshots.
Among the injured were seven police officers, said Police Chief Henry Vivas. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said 11 persons were hurt in a stampede.
Col. Jose Rodrigo Pantoja, commander of the military police, said marchers weren't authorized to enter the plaza, which the government has declared a security zone one of eight such zones in Caracas. He said soldiers acted only after the opposition march reached the plaza.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel blamed "irresponsible" march leaders for trying to enter the security zone. "They tried to break through a security barrier and that produced the clashes with security forces," Mr. Rangel said.
Thousands of people milled about in neighborhoods near Los Proceres as guardsmen clashed with jeering Chavez supporters, some of whom ran through a cloud of tear gas carrying an injured colleague on a stretcher.
Opposition protesters demanded the release of Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, one of about 100 officers who revolted last fall. Gen. Martinez was arrested Dec. 30 without a required court order. A judge ordered his release, but he remains under house arrest.
Venezuela's opposition called a strike Dec. 2 to pressure Mr. Chavez to call a referendum on his presidency. The Venezuelan Constitution permits a possible binding vote halfway into Mr. Chavez's six-year term, or next August. Mr. Chavez rejects an early nonbinding ballot.
The strike has paralyzed oil production in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a top supplier to the United States.
The strike has forced Mr. Chavez to seek food and fuel abroad. Yesterday, he discussed aid for Venezuela with an Algerian diplomat. He also met with OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria on the deadlocked negotiations.

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