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Chavez Replaces Key Military Leaders

S. America: President says he is unlikely to arrest all coup supporters. Opposition groups vow to keep pressing for reforms.


CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez replaced key generals and held at least five top military leaders--including the head of the army--in custody Monday as new details emerged about the rifts in the armed forces that led a group of officers to rise up and then quickly scramble to put Chavez back in power.

Opposition leaders promised to keep pressure on Chavez and renewed their calls for democratic reform in Venezuela, saying the economic and political crisis that precipitated last week's failed uprising had not disappeared.

"We call on this government to abandon its authoritarian and totalitarian positions," said Manuel Cova, secretary-general of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, which called the general strike last week that led to the president's brief ouster. "Our struggle has not ended."

When Chavez took a series of steps Thursday to stop the opposition movement, leaders of the armed forces tried to force him out of office. They backed a civilian-led "transitional government" that lasted just 28 hours, collapsing in the face of pro-Chavez protests, rioting and a military counter-rebellion.

The streets of Caracas were calm Monday.

In a four-hour news conference with foreign reporters, Chavez said he had identified dozens of officers linked to the uprising but not all of them would be investigated.

"Some of these officers have called me," Chavez said. "A lot of them were on one side, then jumped on the other, back and forth." Chavez said that these officers had appeared in television news conferences in which he was denounced but that "they didn't say anything . . . they just stood there. . . . They were manipulated."

Analysts say that a full-scale purge of insurgent officers is unlikely and that serious rifts still exist within the armed forces.

"If he starts a purge, it could cause another revolt," said Luis Vicente Leon, who runs a polling and political analysis firm here.

Leon said the rebellion showed the depth of anger among many officers with Chavez's rule, which grew increasingly heavy-handed in recent months as he lost popularity in the face of an economic crisis. "This story isn't finished yet," Leon said. "It's just the first round."

The military rebellion against Chavez had been brewing for several months and centered on an organization of officers known as Dignity and Integrity for the Armed Forces, said the Caracas daily newspaper El Nacional. Only a few of those officers have come under fire since Chavez returned to power.

El Nacional reported that the rebellion collapsed when it became clear that some mid-level troop commanders remained loyal to Chavez. In the central city of Maracay, an air force unit declared itself for Chavez and prepared to defend its base against attack.

Higher-ranking officers who opposed Chavez abandoned the revolt in part because of the international outcry at the measures taken by their civilian allies, which included the dismissal of the national legislature.

Rather than break a strong taboo on opening fire against other soldiers, the dissenting officers preferred to release Chavez, possibly striking a deal with him for leniency. Chavez went from prisoner back to president, flying back to Caracas from the island military base where he was being held.

On Monday, Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said Gen. Efrain Vasquez topped the list of those officers in custody. Vasquez had been the head of the army, and Chavez said Monday that he was one of the leaders of the conspiracy against him. Two other army generals and two admirals were also in custody.

Chavez announced the appointment of a new head of the army, a new inspector general of the armed forces, and a new head of the military academy, among other positions.

But Chavez said he was unlikely to arrest more officers, in part because of the memory of what happened when he led a failed coup in 1992. "There were some 300 of us in jail," Chavez recalled. "That didn't sit very well."

The president promised to "err on the side of humanism, respect and human rights" in dealing with the leaders of the uprising. He had words of compassion, too, for deposed interim president and business leader Pedro Carmona, one of the few civilians in custody.

"He made a serious mistake, but he was manipulated," Chavez said. The uprising's leaders "put it in his head that he was going to be president. . . . I feel sorry for him." Monday evening, Carmona was allowed to go home under house arrest.

Chavez said he would soon begin a "national dialogue," including round-table discussions with civic leaders. He said he had been inspired to do so during his imprisonment.

"To my adversaries I say, 'Continue being my adversaries,' " Chavez said. "But also ask them not to hate me. I don't hate anyone."

Opposition figures said Monday that they appreciated Chavez's conciliatory tone but that they would continue to press for reforms.

"The crisis that brought forth that multitude onto the streets of Caracas has not subsided," said Antonio Ledezma of Bravo Pueblo Alliance, an opposition group.

Many opposition figures have accused Chavez and his supporters of firing on the anti-Chavez crowd that marched on the presidential palace Thursday. At least 15 people were killed that day. In all, about 60 people died in four days of violence.

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