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Archive for Sunday, January 5, 2003

President’s backers fire on Caracas police force

January 5, 2003

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— Gunmen aligned with President Hugo Chavez fired on police officers Saturday after the government accused the Caracas police of killing two people during a melee at an opposition rally a day earlier, the police chief said. Two officers were wounded.

Saturday's shooting increased tensions in Venezuela, where a month-old opposition strike demanding Chavez's resignation has paralyzed oil exports and driven up international oil prices.

The shooting broke out during a wake for one of those slain, Oscar Gomez Aponte, 24. The two officers wounded were on duty at a small police station next to the Funeraria Valles funeral home in northern Caracas, Police Chief Henry Vivas said.

"They're trying to blame us for the deaths," Vivas said.

On Friday, gunfire erupted at an opposition march on the armed forces headquarters. Military police fired at both Chavez supporters and marchers, and unidentified snipers fired into the crowd.

At least 78 people were injured -- five of them from gunfire. Both sides claimed the two dead as their own.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, attending Saturday's wake, claimed the government had a videotape showing city police were responsible for Friday's shooting deaths.

The state news agency Venpres also accused Caracas police of provoking Friday's violence.

After Rangel's appearance at the wake, as many as 15 people approached the officers and fired automatic weapons, the police chief said.

Some of the attackers may have come from the wake; at least one fled back into the funeral home, Vivas said.

Officers returned fire using rubber bullets and tear gas. There were no immediate arrests, he added.

Chavez tried to take over the city police force -- which reports to an opposition mayor -- last fall. The Supreme Court ordered Chavez to restore the force's autonomy.

Chavez's supporters staged a protest Saturday in Caracas, while his opponents began raising money for a nonbinding referendum on his rule. Labor and business leaders began the strike on Dec. 2. Some 35,000 employees of Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. have joined.

The strike has virtually shut down oil production in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. It has helped push oil prices above $30 per barrel while oil workers have defied a back-to-work order.

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