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 Sunday, 5 January, 2003, 05:28 GMT
Political violence scars Venezuela
Marchers flee as police fire tear gas in Caracas
Troops fired tear gas to disperse the marchers

Violence is an ever present danger in Venezuela, where society is sharply polarised between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez.

Clashes in the capital Caracas on Friday left two people dead and dozens injured.

A one-month old general strike aimed at ousting Mr Chavez has been accompanied by almost daily street protests in many of the nation's cities.

Police officer is hit by opposition supporter in Caracas
Protesters battled with police officers in Caracas

To make matters worse, many Venezuelans carry guns.

Every time supporters and opponents of Mr Chavez meet on the streets, there is a risk of bloodshed.

Bloodshed is exactly what happened on Friday, when tens of thousands of opposition marchers arrived at the capital's main military base, Fuerte Tiuna, to demand the release of a detained dissident general and military support for the strike.

Hundreds of the president's supporters tried to stop the march reaching the barracks.

They threw stones, bottles and fireworks at the rally.

I saw a young guy with blood pouring out of his stomach from where he had been hit

Opposition marcher Jose Boccardo

National Guard troops fired tear gas and rubber pellets in an attempt to keep the two sides apart.

In the tense stand-off that followed more than a dozen gunshots rang out.

"People threw themselves to the ground," said opposition marcher, Jose Boccardo.

"There were at least 15 shots. They seemed to be coming from the other side. Later I saw a young guy with blood pouring out of his stomach from where he had been hit."

'Dictatorial government'

More than 24 hours, later it is still not clear who started shooting.

The mainly opposition-supporting media have blamed Mr Chavez' supporters for the violence, some of whom were caught on camera firing handguns.

Chavez supporter holds copy of Venezuelan constitution
Chavez supporters are resisting pressure to hold early elections

Witnesses saw people on both sides with guns once the shooting had started.

Police officers may also have fired at demonstrators.

"Again, this dictatorial government attacked and repressed the Venezuelan people," said opposition labour leader Alfredo Ramos.

The government's education minister Aristobolo Isturiz said the opposition-controlled metropolitan police were responsible for one of the deaths.

The truth is unlikely to ever come out.

Peace shattered

Almost nine months on from a failed coup attempt against Mr Chavez, triggered by the deaths of 19 people during street clashes, not a single person has been prosecuted.

Neither, for that matter, has anyone been arrested for the deaths of up to 60 others in the two days Mr Chavez was detained by the military.

The violence shattered what had been a relatively quiet holiday season.

As the strike drags on, Venezuelans are putting up with the inconvenience.

The strike has paralysed the country's main oil industry. In the worst hit areas, motorists sleep overnight in their cars waiting to fill up their tanks.

In a country where petrol is cheaper than bottled water, people are paying more than 10 times the price for a litre of petrol on the black market.

Banks, supermarkets and chemists are opening on restricted hours, and most people had to spend Christmas without products such as fresh milk, beer or soft drinks.

Chavez defiant

The political deadlock looks set to continue. The opposition have said they will continue the strike until Mr Chavez resigns.

The Venezuelan leader says early elections would be unconstitutional.

He says his foes will have to wait until August when a constitutionally-binding referendum can be held to decided whether he should step down.

The chronic shortage of fuel supplies has not brought the government down.

But the country has lost more than $2 bn in lost oil sales, and the government can ill afford to keep haemorrhaging money forever.

Nor will Venezuelans put up with much more bloodshed.

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See also:

04 Jan 03 | Americas
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