Caracas, Venezuela Soldiers loyal to President Hugo Chavez seized riot gear -- including submachine guns and shotguns -- from Caracas' police department Tuesday in what the opposition mayor called a deliberate effort to undermine him.
Federal interference in the capital's police department is one reason Venezuela's opposition has staged a strike -- now in its 44th day -- demanding early elections. Tuesday's raids stoked already heated tensions in this polarized nation.
Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena said the weapons seizure stripped police of their ability to control street protests that have erupted almost daily since the strike began Dec. 2. Five people have died in strike-related demonstrations.
Strike leader Manuel Cova said opponents would "strengthen the struggle to topple" Chavez in response to the raids.
"This demonstrates the antidemocratic and authoritarian way in which this government acts," said Cova, leader of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, the country's largest labor union.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said the seizure was part of an effort to make police answer for alleged abuses against Chavez demonstrators. The government accuses police of killing two Chavez supporters during a melee two weeks ago that involved Chavez followers, opponents and security forces.
"The metropolitan police cannot be above the law, above the executive, above citizens," Rangel told foreign reporters. "We are trying to make them answer to the law. That's why we seized their equipment and weapons."
Troops searched several police stations at dawn, confiscating submachine guns and 12-gauge shotguns used to fire rubber bullets and tear gas, said Cmdr. Freddy Torres, the department's legal consultant. Officers were allowed to keep their standard-issue .38-caliber pistols. It was not clear how long the seizure would last.
Chavez ordered troops to take control of the force in November, but the Supreme Court ordered it restored to Pena last month.
Chavez is trying to break a strike that has paralyzed Venezuela's crucial oil industry and cost the government an estimated $4 billion. He has warned he might send troops to seize food production plants that are participating in the strike.
Called to press Chavez into accepting a nonbinding referendum on his rule, the strike has depleted many Caracas supermarkets of basics like milk, flour and bottled water. People spend hours in lines at service stations and at banks open only three hours a day. Many medicines are no longer available.
With hopes of helping resolve the dispute, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter plans to visit Caracas on Jan. 20 to observe the crisis, the Atlanta-based Carter Center announced.