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Clashes Mar Venezuelan Transition

April 13, 2002

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ As businessman Pedro Carmona took control of Venezuela’s interim government, police clashed with hundreds of protesters in the capital and elsewhere demanding the return of ousted leader Hugo Chavez. Several Latin American leaders called the new administration illegitimate.

In downtown Caracas, hundreds of people chanted ``Chavez will be back!″ and ``Democracy, not dictatorship!″ Police fired tear gas as police cars raced back and forth after reports of looting and disturbances.

Several hundred others protested outside Caracas’ Fort Tiuna, the military base where Chavez was taken into detention early Friday. Police dispersed the crowd by firing plastic bullets.

Chavez’s supporters reject the military’s claims that he resigned after being confronted by top commanders over the bloody suppression of an opposition protest Thursday. The supporters call the military move a coup. Since Chavez’s ouster, police and soldiers have been cracking down on his top aides and armed supporters.

After he was sworn in late Friday, Carmona pledged new presidential elections within a year and moved quickly to sweep away what Chavez had done in his three tumultuous years in office. Carmona dissolved the Chavez-controlled Congress, Supreme Court, attorney general’s and comptroller’s offices, and declared a 1999 Constitution sponsored by Chavez null and void.

The state-run oil company has been working to quickly return production to normal, after it was severely cut by strikes against Chavez. Venezuela is the third biggest oil supplier to the United States and the world’s fourth biggest exporter.

``We can achieve the governability required to improve Venezuela’s image,″ said Carmona, a longtime business leader. ``The strongman era has ended.″

But Carmona’s decrees _ and even his installment _ drew immediate criticism.

``This is an illegitimate measure by an illegitimate government,″ said legislator Tania D’Amelio, a member of Chavez’s party. She said others from her party planned to go to Congress on Monday to hold a session, despite Carmona’s proclamations.

Mexican President Vicente Fox said his country would not recognize Venezuela’s new government until new elections are held, and the leaders of Argentina and Paraguay called the new government illegitimate. Leaders of the 19-nation Rio Group of Latin American countries condemned ``the interruption of constitutional order″ in Venezuela.

Thousands of Cubans demonstrated Saturday in Havana to protest Chavez’s removal. Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro were personal friends, and Chavez’s government was close ally of Cuba.

Rights groups said state security forces under Carmona’s control were committing human rights abuses in their crackdoen on Chavez supporters.

``There have been detentions that are not legal and don’t respect the Constitution,″ said Liliana Ortega, director of the local Cofavic rights organization.

Disturbances involving Chavez supporters were reported in at least 20 neighborhoods throughout the city, as well as the cities of Los Teques, Guarenas, Maracay and Coro. Chavez supporters urged residents to take to the streets to join the protests.

``We want to see Chavez. The Venezuelan people don’t buy it that he has resigned,″ said Mario Brito, 36, who lives in a slum near the presidential palace.

Chavez has long had strong support among Venezuela’s poor, though his once huge popularity had dwindled in his last months because of disputes with businessmen, labor, the Catholic Church and others.

He had long alienated the United States with his ties to Castro and Iraq, his alleged tied to leftist Colombian guerrillas.

On Saturday, Carmona and newly appointed Foreign Minister Jose Rodriguez Iturbe met with the ambassadors of the United States and Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Officials did not immediately give any details of the talks.

Chavez could face charges over the bloodshed at Thursday rally of some 150,000 people demanding his ouster.Chavez had ordered National Guard troops and civilian gunmen, including rooftop snipers, to fire on the marchers Thursday military officers said. At least 16 people were killed and some 350 wounded, authorities said Saturday. Some of them had died of their wounds in hospitals.

Chavez’s daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, said in an interview with Cuban television aired Saturday that her family had received information that Chavez had been moved by helicopter overnight from the base to an unknown location.

She and other Chavez backers deny he resigned.

Ex-Education Minister Aristobulo Isturiz said top commanders military ``want to call this anything, make Venezuelans believe that a junta took over because of a vacuum of power after Chavez resigned. But the truth is, there was a coup d’etat here.″

Former National Assembly President Willian Lara, who was present when Venezuela’s military confronted Chavez Friday, told The Associated Press that Chavez refused to resign.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, warned in a statement from New York that human rights and the rule of law were threatened in Venezuela.

Security forces conducted house to house searches Friday for members of ``Bolivarian Circles″ _ Chavez-backed neighborhood groups styled after Cuba’s Revolutionary Block Committees that opponents say were armed. Police raided storehouses and government offices and seized dozens of weapons. They also arrested two men accused of shooting at protesters.

Police on Friday arrested at least three politicians allied with Chavez, including Tarek William Saab, a congressman. Saab’s wife, Francis Fernino, said 100 people had gathered outside the couple’s home, calling for Saab’s blood before he was arrested.

``These people outside were from the upper classes, and they were acting like the worst criminals in the slums,″ Fernino told The Associated Press. She said her husband was ``dragged off to the police station″ without a warrant.

Police captured former Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin at a hotel. Chacin, who was Chavez’s liaison with Colombian rebels, was pummeled by a mob as he was led away.

Four other Chavez-allied politicians were believed to have sought refuge in the Cuban Embassy, which was besieged by some 500 protesters who trashed cars outside the compound and pelted it with eggs, demanding that the four be handed over.

Cuba’s government condemned the harassment and called on the United Nations to investigate the overthrow of Chavez, a close friend of Fidel Castro.

Resentment simmered in a corner of a Caracas plaza where Chavez supporters had frequently handed out flyers supporting his policies and railed against his critics.

``The armed forces should have backed him in such a difficult situation,″ said Yoel Villegas, a 31-year-old waiter. ``That is their duty.″

Carmona, the 60-year-old head of Venezuela’s largest business chamber, had played a key role in a general strike this week that snowballed into Chavez’s ouster. In one of his first actions as interim president, he suspended 48 laws decreed by Chavez that increased the state’s role in the economy, and named a new Cabinet.

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