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Leader of Strike to Oust Chavez Escapes

August 14, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ A labor leader who led a failed oil strike to oust President Hugo Chavez has escaped from prison, prompting troops and police to secure ports, airports and embassies to prevent one of Venezuela’s most prominent prisoners from fleeing country.

Carlos Ortega, who was serving a 16-year sentence for civil rebellion, escaped along with three military officers from the Ramos Verde military prison, Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez said Sunday on state television.

He said the prisoners might have escaped early Sunday, but officials said they were still trying to determine the time.

Troops and police were securing all ports, airports and embassies nationwide to prevent the fugitives from fleeing or seeking asylum at a diplomatic mission, Defense Minister Gen. Raul Baduel told a news conference.

``This is to prevent ... one of the most horrible crimes that have been committed against Venezuela from going unpunished _ a crime of conspiracy along with a coup in which one of the leading figures was Carlos Ortega,″ Rodriguez said.

The possibility that members of the military helped the four escape was being investigated, though there was no evidence yet of such complicity, Baduel said.

Ortega, considered a political prisoner by Venezuela’s opposition, was convicted in December of civil rebellion and instigation to commit illegal acts for his role in the 2002-2003 strike that aimed to topple Chavez’s government.

The two-month strike virtually shut down oil production in the world’s No. 5 oil exporting country and cost Venezuela $7.5 billion, according to the government.

The government has also linked Ortega to an April 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez before a popular uprising helped restore him to power. Ortega organized oil strikes that led up to the coup, but was never convicted of any charges related to it.

Authorities were also trying to re-establish control after inmates _ angered by suspended visits and other security measures taken in light of the escape _ broke in and vandalized the prison director’s office.

``We remain alert because we cannot rule out that a situation of violence could emerge,″ Baduel told reporters, saying the inmates’ were believed to be armed.

The three fugitive military officers are brothers Col. Jesus Farias and Col. Dario Farias and their uncle, Capt. Rafael Farias.

Jesus and Rafael Farias were charged with military rebellion in October after being linked to a group of alleged Colombian paramilitaries who were detained in May 2004. The government claims the group was plotting to assassinate Chavez with the help of Venezuelan opposition leaders and the U.S. government _ charges those parties deny.

Dario Farias was arrested in April 2005 after a military assault rifle was found hidden in his car’s fender and charged with theft of military equipment.

Private broadcaster Globovision reported that National Guard soldiers were stopping vehicles on a highway near the prison in Los Teques, just west of the capital of Caracas.

Update hourly