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Monday, 11 February, 2002, 22:53 GMT
Venezuelan rebel army officers freed
Anti-Chavez demonstrators
Protesters accused Chavez of being autocratic
Two officers in the Venezuelan armed forces, who last week called for the resignation of President Hugo Chavez, have appeared before their superiors to explain their actions.

Both Colonel Pedro Soto and Captain Pedro Flores were allowed to go free pending further investigations.


It doesn't matter that I wear a uniform. I have committed no crime

Colonel Pedro Soto
The officers had been threatened with arrest if they did not hand themselves in. They each face courts martial for insubordination after calling Mr Chavez a dictator.

Their comments provoked street protests for and against the president.

Colonel Soto - who denies he was trying to force a coup - had initially said he would not give himself up, but he did eventually agree to meet his commander, General Regulo Anselmi Lopez.

"According to the Venezuelan constitution all citizens have the right to express themselves. It doesn't matter that I wear a uniform. I have committed no crime," said the colonel.

Colonel Pedro Soto (left) and Captain Pedro Flores
Colonel Soto (left) reiterated his demands
Captain Flores said: "I have not been detained. I remain in favour of the resignation of Hugo Chavez."

Earlier, he had told reporters: "(Chavez) is turning civilian society against us, we are practically headed for civil war."

About 50 sympathisers turned out to support the rebellious officers. They banged pots and chanted anti-Chavez slogans as the two men went to meet their senior officers at La Carlota airport outside the capital, Caracas.

Colonel Soto's attorney had warned that he would call for massive street protests if his client was detained.

Colonel Soto burst onto the Venezuelan political scene during an unscheduled speech at a democracy forum in a Caracas hotel.

In it, he accused the Venezuelan president of trying to destroy 44 years of the country's democracy.

After motorists prevented Colonel Soto's arrest on a busy Caracas highway, several thousand Venezuelans spontaneously took to the streets in support of his stand.

The colonel led a march of pot-banging protestors to Mr Chavez's residence to demand his resignation.

Alienated

At a smaller demonstration in a plaza in an affluent eastern Caracas suburb the following day, Colonel Soto said he merely voiced the feeling of the people and the armed forces.

Although the colonel said his opinions represent the majority feeling of the armed forces, most officers did not join him in criticising the president.

President Chavez called him a "traitor" who was being backed by his political opponents.

Venezuela is a country deeply divided over its charismatic leader.

Mr Chavez still retains loyalty for his self-styled "revolution" of social reforms from a core of mainly poor Venezuelans.

But he has alienated many sectors of society with his his aggressive style, alleged sympathy for Colombia's rebel groups, close friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and attacks on business, the church, unions and the media.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | Americas
Chavez marks his failed coup
31 Jul 00 | Americas
Chavez: Visionary or demagogue?
28 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Venezuela
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