YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Clash at an Opposition Rally in Venezuela Leaves 14 Injured

June 14, 2003|From Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan troops fought street battles Friday with supporters of President Hugo Chavez who tried to disrupt an opposition rally in an impoverished area of Caracas that is considered a government stronghold. At least 14 people were injured.

Troops in armored vehicles arrived at the scene while "Chavistas," as the president's supporters are known, threw bottles, rocks and firecrackers at security forces. The Chavistas also looted a nearby police station after tearing down the walls with sledgehammers and metal rods.

Hundreds of national guard troops and police in riot gear launched tear gas grenades to disperse more than 100 rowdy government backers. Columns of black smoke rose from tires burning in the street and mingled with thick clouds of white tear gas.

Gunfire from unknown sources wounded one police officer and three civilians, said Rodolfo Briceno, the fire chief of Caracas, the capital.

At least 10 people were slightly injured by flying objects, he added. The tear gas forced the evacuation of 25 children from a nearby hospital.

Ignoring government warnings that violence could erupt, opposition parties called the rally as part of a series of events in Caracas slums to prove Chavez's traditional support among the poor has evaporated.

Interior Minister Lucas Rincon pleaded with march organizers to take the protest to an area where there would be less potential for violence.

"We alert the population to the security risks that this act carries," Rincon said in an address to the nation late Thursday. "This isn't about impeding a political act. It's about taking it to a less risky one."

Hours before the planned protest, dozens of Chavez sympathizers burned tires in a plaza on the only route to the opposition's chosen site -- an eastern Caracas street beneath hills covered by red-brick shanties.

The protest came three weeks after unidentified gunmen killed one person and wounded 10 at an opposition march in a poor neighborhood on the west side of Caracas. No one was arrested.

"A truly dark story has repeated itself. We had said this was the least appropriate place to stage this demonstration," said Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel.

The opposition center-right COPEI party refused to cancel the protest, insisting that it wouldn't be intimidated by what it called government-sponsored violence to silence dissent.

Chavez denies those allegations. He counters that opponents constantly provoke chaos to justify the ouster of a democratically elected president.

The president was briefly ousted in an April 2002 coup and defied demands that he step down during a ruinous general strike that collapsed in February.

Los Angeles Times Articles