CARACAS, Venezuela — Gun-wielding attackers opened fire late Friday on a crowded square that has become the heart of the movement opposing President Hugo Chavez, killing three people and bringing chaos and terror to Venezuela's weeklong protest against the controversial leader.
Only moments after opposition leaders announced on nationwide television that they were prolonging a strike that on Friday shut down oil exports in the world's fifth-largest petroleum producer, shots rang out in Plaza Altamira in an upscale neighborhood of the capital.
At least two men -- and as many as four -- ran up to the square with pistols drawn and began firing indiscriminately into the crowd of men, women and children, witnesses said. People in the square also said they had seen firing from nearby rooftops and men on motorcycles shooting as they raced by the square.
Throughout the night, chaos reigned. Sirens filled the air. Men, women and children carrying Venezuelan flags they had once waved in protest ran away with them fluttering in retreat. Four-wheel-drive vehicles, taxis and cars raced down mostly empty streets.
The atmosphere was electric and dangerous. A mob attacked and beat at least one man, who apparently was apprehended as he tried to steal someone's cellular phone.
The attacks plunged the country into its worst political crisis since April, when a coup briefly ousted Chavez. The coup was preceded by a protest march that also turned violent, leaving 19 people dead.
Venezuela appeared on the brink of a political collapse Friday night as protesters blamed Chavez supporters for the attack and demanded that the president immediately resign. Worries also immediately surged about the possibility of a second coup attempt.
The protests in Venezuela pit Chavez against a fragmented but broad-based opposition movement that consists of businesses, unions, media groups and ordinary Venezuelans.
The dead in Friday night's shooting included a 17-year-old girl as well as a 67-year-old man, whose body was covered with a Venezuelan flag. City officials said 28 people were injured. Among the wounded were children ages 10 to 14.
One of the gunmen was arrested and two 9-millimeter pistols were confiscated, officials said. Six other people were detained for questioning, authorities said. Of the seven detainees, one was Portuguese and one was British.
The detained gunman, identified as Joao Goveia, a Portuguese national, was shown on TV admitting to the crime during an interview with reporters. Later, news programs began airing a videotape that seemed to show Goveia participating in a pro-Chavez rally a day earlier, lending strength to the claim that a Chavez supporter was responsible for the killings.
Witnesses said one of the attackers emptied his magazine, then reloaded and continued firing as the crowd dived for the ground.
"A big man, tall and light-skinned, pulled out a gun and started shooting," said Luis Leon Jiminez, who was manning a protest stand at the square and said he had just served coffee to the two victims. "The man fell down slowly. The girl said, 'Help me, help me.' "
Plaza Altamira has been the center of protests since October, when a group of dissident generals opposed to Chavez took over the space and declared it "liberated territory."
Since then, the number of officers who have joined the protest has grown to more than 100, and the square has become a daily gathering place for those opposed to the left-leaning Chavez, who they say has driven the country into financial ruin and political chaos.
Panic broke out Friday night as the shots echoed through the plaza, which is ringed by office buildings, tony stores and a shuttered four-star hotel.
People in the crowd threw themselves to the ground as some of the dissident military officers rushed out on the square with 9-millimeter pistols drawn, using them to gesture to bystanders to stay down.
The two dead fell on the edge of the plaza, bleeding profusely. As they were being loaded into an ambulance, a single shot rang out, once again sending the screaming crowd to the ground.
"I heard at least 20 shots -- pow, pow, pow," said Rafael Leon, a 42-year-old doctor who had come to the square to listen to a protest speech. "Then I saw a big police officer grab one of the men."
As the night wore on, rumors flew and crowds ran back and forth. The apparent backfiring of a car caused more panic, and the remaining protesters again flung themselves on the ground. As the protesters stood back up, someone grabbed a microphone and began hoarsely screaming: "We are not afraid! We are not afraid!"
Gen. Felipe Rodriguez, one of the dissenting officers, walked through the crowd, running into a woman who then hugged him.
"We're staying. We're staying," he said.
Pools of blood marked where the dead and wounded fell. Television showed images of bloodstained men and women being treated at local hospitals and in ambulances.