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Loyal Troops Seize Venezuela Coup Leaders

February 05, 1992|STAN YARBRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN ANTONIO DE TACHIRA, Venezuela — Troops loyal to the government arrested the leaders of a coup who intended to assassinate the president and impose a "bloody dictatorship" in one of Latin America's oldest democracies, President Carlos Andres Perez said Tuesday.

"This was an act of vandalism by a group of military members (who) tried to carry out a coup to assassinate me, ignoring their constitutional duties and disobeying intelligent reasoning," Perez said in one of several television addresses Tuesday from an undisclosed location in the capital.

Defense Minister Francisco Ochoa said loyal troops put down insurrections in Caracas, the central cities of Maracay and Valencia and in western Zulia state, the home of much of Venezuela's vast petroleum wealth.

"At this moment almost all bases find themselves absolutely loyal to the legitimately constituted government," he told reporters in Caracas, adding, "The only base that still has some problems is in Valencia, where there are just a few units with difficulties."

He said he did not know how many people had been killed in the coup attempt, which began late Monday. But radio reports from Caracas said that casualties were high, especially around the La Carlota airport in central Caracas. There were other reports that more than 100 officers and 900 soldiers had been arrested for participating in the coup, which early estimates said had resulted in at least 19 deaths and 51 injuries among government troops.

Perez on Tuesday imposed a state of martial law, suspending constitutional guarantees nationwide until the situation returns to normal.

Although the precise motives of the coup instigators remained unclear, newspapers have speculated for months about a possible revolt against the government as a result of Venezuela's plummeting economy, charges of official corruption and military discontent over the country's border negotiations with Colombia.

Perez said the coup attempt was led by paratroopers from the "Jose Leonardo Chirinos" regiment based in Maracay, a city some 95 miles south of the capital. He called the plotters "ambitious delinquents" and said that most of the armed forces and Venezuelan people had stood by him.

He noted that Ochoa and the rest of the military's high command rejected the coup from its beginning. Ochoa said the uprising had been ordered by disgruntled mid-level officers, including a lieutenant colonel, a major and a captain. He declined to name the officers but said they are in custody.

One detained officer, identified only as Hugo Chavez, appeared on television, seeming resigned to defeat. He said the attempt to install a military "junta of national reconstruction" had been called off "to prevent more bloodshed."

In Washington, President Bush, referring to Perez as "one of the great democratic leaders in our hemisphere," condemned the coup attempt and pledged U.S. support for democracy in Venezuela and neighboring Colombia. "This outrageous, illegal military coup certainly should be condemned by all countries, not just in our hemisphere," the President said.

Bush said he conferred by telephone early Tuesday morning with Perez and Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. "I assured them, both of them, that the United States supports democracy in Venezuela and elsewhere in this hemisphere and that this military coup attempt against President Carlos Andres Perez is firmly condemned by the United States," he said.

Later, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said that Perez did not request U.S. aid in quashing the coup except to ask for a strong statement of American support.

In Venezuela, speculation about why the military officials attempted their uprising focused, in part, on the efforts to resolve a long dispute between Caracas and Bogota over territory and a Caribbean gulf shared by both nations. Most in the Venezuelan military believe that the "Gulf of Venezuela" belongs solely to their nation and that any negotiations with Colombia are a sign of weakness by Perez.

During the coup attempt, Ochoa said, rebels had attacked the president's residence, La Casona, shortly after Perez returned late Monday from participating with other international leaders in a Swiss meeting of the World Economic Forum. Perez was forced to flee to the downtown Miraflores Presidential Palace, which also was attacked. Although the rebels reportedly came within several rooms of the president, loyal troops whisked him to a secure site, where he broadcast addresses to Venezuelans.

Insurrection leaders were also heard on the air. Speaking from Maracay, a man calling himself Francisco Javier Arias said the coup attempt was a response to "social unrest" and "military discontent." He called his group the Bolivarist Revolutionary Movement, named after Simon Bolivar, the leader of Latin America's colonial rebellion against Spain.

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