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Saturday, 29 June, 2002, 04:23 GMT 05:23 UK
Venezuelans fear new clashes
Anti-Chavez demonstrators protest in Caracas but elsewhere the president's supporters also took to the streets
Political tension is again increasing

A group of middle-class Venezuelans neighbours sit in the airy courtyard of a large comfortable house in the east of the capital Caracas, discussing how they can defend themselves against possible attacks from armed supporters of the country's president Hugo Chavez.


They feel the police and the National Guard will not be able to protect them in time

Local resident Jose
"People right now in Caracas are in terror I would say. I would use that word," says one neighbour Jose.

"They are preparing themselves because they feel the police and the National Guard will not be able to protect them in time so they have to protect themselves.

"We feel that in this new case they will come with more power to do harm to the people."

President Hugo Chavez
Chavez blames the opposition for stoking coup fears
Neighbourhoods in many parts of Caracas have started to form self-defence groups following the failed coup against Mr Chavez in April during which more than 60 people were killed and hundreds of shops and businesses looted.

The looting mainly took place in poorer areas of the city, which make up the core of the support for Mr Chavez.

The neighbourhood groups fear that if another attempt is made to remove Mr Chavez, the violence will be even worse.

Opposition leaders have lodged legal proceedings against him and Caracas is awash with rumours that disgruntled military officers are preparing another coup.

They fear that waves of Mr Chavez' supporters will descend from the city's hillside slums not only to loot, but to target their homes.

They say the government is deliberately arming the Bolivarian Circles, neighbourhood groups created by Mr Chavez to perform social work in poorer areas.

The government denies it has done so and says it will prosecute anyone who owns a gun illegally.

Emergency plan

Arnoldo, another member of the self-defence group, told me neighbours had begun stocking up on food and water, medical supplies and assigning roles in the event that "suspicious" people are seen in the neighbourhood.


It was an unarmed society. We've been pushed into taking some precautions

Local resident Arnoldo

After an aerosol alarm is sounded, a line of cars will block access to the area and oil spread on the road to deter any motorised supporters of Mr Chavez.

Those neighbours with guns have also been given roles.

"It was an unarmed society. We've been pushed into taking some precautions," Arnoldo says.

"Yes, we have identified some people and we've given them responsibilities for a fatal scenario. We have to," he said.

"We are talking about protection, protecting our families, our values. We won't let them take away the things that have taken us so long to get."

Hysteria

To many Venezuelans, this may seem like collective hysteria in response to an opposition and media who have whipped up fears that the Bolivarian Circles are armed.


We hope there will be an institutional solution to the crisis. We say no to violence

Local resident Arnoldo

Although some circles may be armed, there is precious little evidence to suggest that most do anything other than useful community work.

Arnoldo says he hopes rumours of a coup and violence have been exaggerated.

"We hope there will be an institutional solution to the crisis. We say no to violence," he says.

"There are violent people in the Bolivarian Circles, but this is a very small proportion of our society.

"Venezuela is much more than what we are going through now. We are talking to our children about what a nice country we will have, not this war that we're having."


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