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100,000 Rally for Besieged Chavez in Venezuela

Demonstrations erupt as the elections council prepares to rule on recall drive signatures.

March 01, 2004|From Times Wire Services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Chanting, "Chavez! Chavez!" more than 100,000 Venezuelans marched Sunday to support President Hugo Chavez as opponents demanding his recall demonstrated in several cities.

Venezuela's National Elections Council said it would decide today on the validity of more than 3.4 million signatures that opponents submitted demanding a recall vote.

Last week, the council announced it would ask hundreds of thousands of citizens to confirm their signatures on petitions that have technical problems. The decision infuriated opposition leaders, who have urged followers to wage a civil disobedience campaign.

Oil-rich Venezuela is torn between those who accuse Chavez of trying to impose communism and those who say he has allowed the poor unprecedented participation in politics.

Chavez, who accuses Washington of being behind a failed 2002 coup and funding groups seeking the referendum on his rule, vowed to stay in power longer than President Bush.

He also used a vulgarity to refer to the American leader.

Bush is "not even the legitimate president of the United States," Chavez said, referring to the problematic Florida balloting in the 2000 elections.

"This is to say no to the government of Mr. Bush, an interventionist, invading, colonialist government," Chavez said. "I'm challenging Mr. Bush to a bet. Who will last longer: him in the White House or me?"

Washington denies backing attempts to oust Chavez, including the 2002 coup.

The Venezuelan leader made his comments as new violence broke out on the streets of Caracas, the capital, where National Guard troops clashed with opposition protesters.

Military helicopters roared in low runs overhead as soldiers fired tear gas and plastic bullets to repel demonstrators, who threw stones and built burning barricades on the east side of the city.

A soldier and a cameraman were wounded by gunfire during the clashes, and an opposition protester was hit in the head by gunmen firing from motorcycles, according to witnesses and officials.

Opposition demonstrations demanding a recall also erupted in the western cities of Maracaibo and Barquisimeto.

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