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Amid Violence, Setback for Chavez Recall Drive

March 03, 2004|From Reuters

CARACAS, Venezuela — Anti-government protesters clashed with Venezuelan troops in several cities Tuesday as electoral officials ruled that foes of President Hugo Chavez had failed to collect enough signatures to put a referendum on his rule to a vote.

One protester was killed in Valencia and another in Caracas, bringing to at least six the number of people shot dead in five days of violence in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. Dozens have been wounded as Chavez opponents press for a vote against a leftist president they accuse of dictatorial rule.

National Electoral Council President Francisco Carrasquero said first results showed that the opposition had collected only 1.83 million valid pro-referendum signatures, short of the 2.4 million required.

But officials said opposition voters would have a chance to reconfirm an additional 1.1 million disputed signatures. The recall vote could go ahead if at least 600,000 of the signatures were validated in a complex process criticized by the opposition as a tactic to scuttle the vote.

"There is no other way but to accept this decision," Carrasquero said. "If someone does not accept it, they will be acting outside the law."

Opposition leaders criticized the council ruling as unfair. They called for a huge march Thursday to demand that the signatures be approved.

"They've just announced the blatant robbery of 1 million signatures," opposition leader Antonio Ledezma said. "We call on people to keep up the peaceful civic fight in the streets."

Troops firing tear gas skirmished with anti-government protesters in several cities.

Three people were injured in gunfights in eastern Caracas after students joined homemakers and office workers to set up burning barricades to block highways in several cities.

Most of the capital remained fairly quiet Tuesday. But smoke billowed from burning tires and garbage in the upscale Altamira district, a hotbed of Chavez opposition, where protesters tossed stones and fired rockets late into the night.

The government said that the armed forces would guarantee order and that 47 people had been arrested.

Hundreds of Chavez sympathizers cheered outside the electoral council headquarters in downtown Caracas.

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