Venezuela Tightens Security
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Police and soldiers fanned out across the city and guarded the presidential palace, Congress and subway stations on Thursday ahead of a large protest against President Hugo Chavez.
One skirmish was reported, when Chavez supporters blocked a highway into Caracas with trucks to prevent Venezuelans from the provinces from attending Thursday’s march. National Guardsmen lobbed tear gas to disperse the pro-Chavez faction.
Opposition leaders hope for a million people to attend the protest, part of a campaign to stir up popular fervor to oust Chavez before his term ends in 2007. The planned demonstration was to be the fifth march in Caracas against the leader since he was temporarily ousted by a military coup in April.
Protesters seek early presidential elections, accusing Chavez of plunging the economy into recession and promoting violence with speeches against Venezuela’s business elite.
Drivers on their way to the midmorning march honked horns, hung the blue-red-and-yellow Venezuelan flag outside their windows and shouted, ``Chavez out!″ Others walked to the eastern Caracas starting point wearing T-shirts that said ``elections now″ and ``Chavez resign.″
Chavez dispatched soldiers to various points of the city, and warned opponents not to revive the tensions that provoked the April coup, which left dozens dead in protests and rioting. The former army paratrooper refuses to resign and urges his opponents to wait until Aug. 2003, when the constitution would allow a midterm referendum on his rule.
Defense Minister Jose Luis Pietro said he has sent troops to guard against rooftop snipers near the presidential palace. Snipers are widely believed to have fired on an April 11 opposition march that left 19 dead and helped provoke the coup.
``We’ll do no favors to our country by promoting a confrontation among Venezuelans,″ Pietro said Thursday in an address broadcast by law on all local television and radio stations.
Opponents accused the president of trying to intimidate dissenters with heavy security, but vowed the initiative would backfire and inspire more people to march.
``This is only making people angrier,″ said Enrique Mendoza, a Chavez foe who is governor of the central state of Miranda.
On Wednesday night, the secret police tried to arrest two army generals who spoke out against Chavez and urged people to march. But hundreds of neighbors in two upscale Caracas neighborhoods swarmed around the men and drove the police away.
Chavez claimed to have frustrated a coup planned for this week after secret police raided the home of an 83-year-old former foreign minister accused of plotting it.