- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela, Jan. 5 (UPI) — Police, the military and the national guard Sunday braced for more gunfire in the streets, after two days of death and woundings have darkened the character of the vast civil divide over whether President Hugo Chavez should go or stay.

Two police officers were hit by ricocheting bullet fragments Saturday in Caracas during a wake held by Chavez supporters for one of two people shot to death Friday, the BBC reported.

CNN reported a woman was also wounded in the jaw Saturday, hit by one of the sniper bullets fired at the funeral home where a Friday's victim was taken.

Although both sides have charged the other with escalating the violence, the source of Friday's deadly gunfire has not been determined.

Pro-Chavez protesters said that on Sunday they would carry the two caskets past the hotel where Organization of American States negotiators have made their headquarters.

During Friday's demonstrations Chavez met with the OAS representatives who have so far have made no progress in trying to mediate the increasingly violent power struggle.

Police have been responding to handgun fire with shotgun pellets, rubber bullets and tear gas.

In the civil unrest now a few days into its second month, the Caracas police try to separate the camps of street demonstrators, but not necessarily as strong allies of the national government, which tried to take control of the police force last last year. Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena opposes Chavez.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel Saturday accused the police of being implicated in Friday's two deaths of what CNN reported were pro-government demonstrators.

Chavez, who shows no sign of stepping down, has said the first opportunity provided under the country's constitution for a referendum vote on his future is August. His government has gone to court to block a non-binding vote Feb. 2 being paid for by private donations. Protestors want him to either resign or schedule a new election.

The demonstrations oon each of the past 35 days had been disorderly up until Friday but not deadly, as managerial and middle class marchers protested Chavez moves toward a left leaning government more resembling that of Cuba as well as of corruption and mismanagement.

As increasing numbers of supporters, mostly drawn from Caracas' strongly pro-Chavez poor, turned out to counter the opposition, gunfire has become more frequent and news videotape after Friday's confrontations showed one man appearing to fire a handgun in the direction of demonstrators.

The street unrest has accompanied the crippling strike by oil industry workers that has sharply cut the OPEC member's oil output, the mainstay of government revenues.

In recent days, Chavez opposition has also begun calling for a boycott of sales tax payments, to further weaken his government. In turn, the government has raised the possibility of martial law.

Chavez has reportedly begun efforts to import a few oil industry workers from Algeria and elsewhere.Five people were injured Friday by the same gunfire that killed two demonstrators outside Caracas' Fort Tiuna, as Chavez supporters threw bottles, fire crackers and rocks at opposition marchers. The opposition demonstrators were showing support for an army general under house arrest inside.

More than six dozen people including seven police officers suffered injuries other than gunshot wounds in Friday's melee.

The government is estimated to be losing about $35 million a day in oil revenues with production at low levels, between 150,000 and 800,000 barrels a day.

Yet the food supply has not been hurt, many small businesses keep operating in the capital city and some gasoline is still being sold to long lines of motorists.

The civil impasse has pressured the world price of oil even as the Venezuelan currency has weakened, getting the attention of countries far removed from South America.




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