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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 23:22 GMT
Pressure mounts on Venezuelan president
Anti-Chavez demonstrators
Opponents accuse Chavez of being autocratic
Tension has been rising in Venezuela, as supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez took to the streets on Friday for a second straight day of demonstrations.

A crowd of protesters calling for the president to resign gathered in a square in the east of the capital Caracas, as followers of the president staged a counter-demonstration outside the Miraflores palace.

This is not a democratic government

Pedro Soto, Air Force colonel
Local television reported running battles between rival demonstrators in the western oil city of Maracaibo, according to Reuters news agency.

On Monday when hundreds of anti-Chavez protesters demonstrated against celebrations marking 10 years since the president staged a failed coup.

President Chavez's popularity has declined in recent months as Venezuela - the world's fourth biggest oil exporter - struggles to cope with an economic crisis and mounting criticism of the government at home and abroad.

Air Force Colonel Pedro Soto, who led Thursday's protest, accused the president of being a "tyrant" and wanting to install a communist-style regime in Venezuela.

Growing dissent

On Friday, a second military officer publicly criticised the president, raising doubts about the strength of support for the president among the Venezuelan military.

Colonel Pedro Soto (left) and Captain Pedro Flores
Soto and Flores have urged more army officers to oppose Chavez

Pedro Flores, a captain in the National Guard, accused the president of being undemocratic in attacks on the Catholic Church, the media and the "rule of law".

"At any moment, the president might try to become an exact copy of Fidel Castro, who is not exactly an object of devotion for us Venezuelans," said Captain Flores.

The captain called on other members of the armed forces to join the chorus against President Chavez.

Coup dismissed

The government, however, said the president had the full backing of the military and dismissed rumours of a possible coup.

Hugo Chavez
Chavez's popularity has dropped sharply in recent months

Correspondents say it is unclear how much support the two officers have within the armed forces.

But now that they have spoken out, Mr Chavez has a problem on his hands: if he deals with them harshly, he risks alienating more officers; by doing nothing, his opponents will take it as a signal of weakness.

Friday's protest in Caracas was smaller than the previous day's noisy rally at Altamira Plaza, when hundreds of anti-Chavez demonstrators gathered, chanting "Chavez out".

The colonel was earlier held for a short time by police after he called for the president to resign, but he was freed after protests from supporters.

The head of the Venezuelan armed forces, General Lucas Rincon, has ordered Colonel Soto and Captain Flores to explain their actions to their superiors.

Colonel Soto has said he will not give himself up, Reuters news agency reported.

See also:

08 Feb 02 | Americas
Venezuelans march against president
04 Feb 02 | Americas
Chavez marks his failed coup
24 Jan 02 | Americas
Rival marches in Venezuelan capital
25 Jan 02 | Americas
Chavez reshuffle defies protesters
16 Dec 01 | Americas
Chavez warns Venezuela banks
10 Dec 01 | Americas
Strike closes Venezuelan cities
31 Jul 00 | Americas
Chavez: Visionary or demagogue?
28 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Venezuela
08 Feb 02 | Business
Venezuela devaluation fears mount
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