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1 Killed in Venezuela Opposition Protest

May 25, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ An opposition party held a protest in a slum area considered a stronghold of President Hugo Chavez, killing one person and injuring 17.

Once political heavyweights, Democratic Action emerged from relative obscurity to hold Saturday’s rally, challenging the president in his own backyard _ the crime-infested slum of Catia.

Several hundred turned up before unidentified gunmen interrupted the rally and protesters ran for cover.

One man was shot and killed, said district mayor Freddy Bernal, though it was unclear whether he was participating in the rally. Ten people were wounded by gunfire and seven more were treated for cuts from glass bottles. None of the injuries were life-threatening, said Caracas health officer Pedro Aristimuno.

Police sharpshooters stationed on a rooftop above the rally fired at public housing buildings where the shots apparently originated several blocks away.

Members of the government had warned of violence before the protest, calling it a ``provocation″ because of Catia’s alleged overwhelming allegiance to the president. Chavez draws most of his support from Venezuela’s poor majority, many of whom live in shanty towns like Catia.

Some 4,000 police and National Guardsmen were deployed in Caracas ahead of the event but failed to guarantee security at the protest, which was held on a short, narrow street with poor access and poor escape routes.

More than 50 people have been killed in politically related violence since April 2002 and over 300 wounded by firearms, according to local human rights group Cofavic.

Earlier Saturday, gunmen ambushed a National Guard post in Catia, wounding three soldiers and two civilians, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said. He said Bandera Roja, a hard-line opposition group, ``presumably″ was responsible. Bandera Roja denied it. There were no immediate arrests.

The shootings occurred a day after the government and opposition agreed to a plan for a referendum on Chavez’s presidency. The agreement was brokered by the Organization of American States.

Chavez, a leftist firebrand, has vowed to defeat his opponents at the ballot box and says he will remain in power until 2021.

Opponents accuse him of trying to install a communist regime in Venezuela, and ruining the economy in the process.

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