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Venezuela Army Gen. Orders Rebellion

April 12, 2002

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ As top military commanders rebelled against President Hugo Chavez, rebel National Guard troops seized government television and took it off the air late Thursday, the station manager said. Civilians celebrated outside.

Earlier Thursday police and armed Chavez supporters fired on a march by 150,000 opposition protesters near the presidential palace. At least 12 people were killed and as many as 110 wounded, officials said.

Globovision TV reported that Chavez’s family had been flown out of Caracas. The report couldn’t immediately be confirmed.

Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, the commander of the army, ordered all his commanders to join him in rebellion against Chavez. ``We ask the Venezuelan people’s forgiveness for today’s events,″ he said. ``Mr. President, I was loyal to the end, but today’s deaths cannot be tolerated.″ More than 40 other high officers rebelled, including Gen. Luis Alberto Camacho Kairuz, vice minister for citizen security.

There were earlier reports Chavez was preparing to leave the country, and three executive jets were seen preparing for takeoff at La Carlota military airbase, which usually closes after dark. Televised reports that Chavez and his family were leaving couldn’t be confirmed. A Chavez spokeswoman denied the reports, saying the president was meeting with officials at the palace.

Small tanks guarded the palace as caravans of armored troop vehicles patrolled Caracas streets and highways.

Earlier Thursday, Chavez ordered five private Caracas television stations to close for allegedly abusing freedom of expression by inciting opposition protests that erupted in violence. The stations continued transmitting by satellite, however, and some were able to re-establish their signals intermittently to report on the violence and casualties. The Organization of American States demanded the restrictions be lifted.

A group of 30 military officers declared themselves in rebellion against Chavez ``for violating democratic principles, guarantees and the human rights of Venezuelans.″

``The Constitution obliges us to maintain internal order and avoid more spilling of blood and the destruction of our brave people and their institutions,″ the officers said in a communique read by Navy Vice Adm. Hector Ramirez.

Earlier, 11 other generals, admirals and commanders of the armed forces declared themselves in rebellion. None had active commands, palace officials said. But Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, inspector general of the National Guard, condemned the armed pro-Chavez civilian groups known as ``Bolivarian Circles″ for firing on civilians.

National Guard troops fired tear gas at the front ranks of stick-bearing, rock-throwing marchers to keep them about 100 yards away from the palace and from thousands of Chavez supporters. Tear gas drifted into the presidential compound.

Several shots were fired near the palace, and scuffles with police erupted in several downtown locations. Witnesses said snipers belonging to pro-Chavez street groups fired on crowds from rooftops. Caracas Fire Department Cmdr. Rodolfo Briceno said that snipers fired on ambulance crews as they tried to evacuate the wounded near the palace.

Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, accused government snipers of firing on crowds, especially upon opposition demonstrators. ``Chavez has shown his true face,″ Pena claimed.

Vargas Hospital director Manuel Rojas said at least 12 people were killed and 96 wounded.

``This is state terrorism. The international community must condemn these killings. This government is criminal,″ said Ramon Escobar Salon, a former attorney general.

Jorge Tortoza, 45, a photographer with Diario 2001 newspaper, was shot in the face by a man in civilian clothing while he was covering the protest, said reporter Angel Arraez. Tortoza was in critical condition at Vargas hospital.

Many protesters reassembled at a rally late Thursday in eastern Caracas to demand that the armed forces intervene and oust Chavez. Luis Miquilena, Chavez’s longtime mentor and a powerful interior minister until earlier this year, denounced the repression.

Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, inspector general of the National Guard, condemned the armed pro-Chavez groups, known as ``Bolivarian Circles,″ for firing on civilians.

The violence erupted on the third day of a general strike called to support oil executives who want Chavez to sack new management at the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA. The executives are conducting a work slowdown that has seriously cut production and exports in Venezuela, the No. 3 oil supplier to the United States and the No. 4 oil exporter in the world.

PDVSA management charged the board appointments were based on political considerations and not merit. After six weeks of protests, Chavez fired seven more executives Sunday and sent 12 others into early retirement.

The 950,000-barrel-per-day Paraguana refinery, one of the world’s largest, ran at less than 50 percent capacity, and loading of tankers proceeded slowly, with at least 20 vessels anchored at main ports. The 130,000-barrel-per-day El Palito refinery will not reach full capacity until the weekend.

Industry officials said gasoline supplies to major Venezuelan cities could be threatened if the slowdown continues.

The International Energy Agency warned that Venezuela’s crisis and political uncertainties in the Middle East could upset the oil market. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has said it has no plans to pump more oil to replace supplies being withheld by Iraq to protest Israel’s offensive against Palestinians.

The general strike was called Tuesday by the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation, or CTV, and Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s largest business group. On Thursday, the groups demanded that Chavez resign.

``There is no accommodation possible. What we’re seeking is Chavez’s resignation,″ said Gregorio Rojas, Fedecamaras’ treasurer.

He said the opposition was trying to persuade the armed forces to force Chavez to step down and establish a ``transition government″ that would call new elections.

Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel had insisted the military fully backs Chavez, a former army officer who staged a failed coup in 1992. The United States has said it opposes any coup against Chavez, a leftist who was democratically elected in 1998 and whose term ends in 2006.

Rojas said strike organizers responded to a government offer to meet with dissenting oil executives Thursday by first demanding that Chavez personally attend. Calls for Chavez’s ouster followed, and talks were postponed.

A PDVSA source said that dissident staff stepped up demands and now want a public apology from Chavez and the resignations of the company board, Oil Minister Alvaro Silva and Deputy Minister Bernardo Alvarez.

Chavez was last seen in public Tuesday, when he condemned the strike as a brazen attempt to oust him.

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