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Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 22:24 GMT 23:24 UK
Venezuela officers cleared over coup
Venezuelan National Guard outside the Supreme Court building
Authorities had feared fear further violence
Venezuela's Supreme Court has dismissed charges against four military officers accused of involvement in April's coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez.

The decision immediately triggered clashes between the president's supporters and National Guard troops who fired tear gas to disperse protesters around the court in the capital, Caracas.

The supreme court judges voted 11-8 to reject the charges, saying the attorney-general had failed to present enough evidence that the two generals and two admirals participated in the uprising which briefly ousted Mr Chavez from power.

One of the four officers, Vice Adm. Daniel Comisso, speaks to the press
The officers deny charges of rebellion
Government supporters had argued that if the court ruled against a trial, it would set a precedent for further uprisings but opposition leaders accused Mr Chavez and his followers of trying to intimidate the court.

During the day, groups of Mr Chavez's supporters gathered outside the court waving placards and banners, chanting that the men should be brought to trial.

On the other side of the capital, protesters opposed to Mr Chavez gathered in support of the officers.

The four men claim they merely stepped in to prevent a political vacuum after Mr Chavez was ousted.

Security was stepped up around the court amid fears of a repeat of the violence that has wracked the streets of Caracas in the past two weeks following the previous two decisions by the court to reject calls for a trial.

Seven people were shot and wounded as supporters of the president rampaged through the streets, blocking off streets near the courthouse and setting fire to tires.

Political divide

Before the ruling was announced, Mr Chavez appealed for calm, saying that justice would be done whatever the outcome.

"Today more than ever I firmly believe in democracy, liberty, peace and social justice," he said.

However the US embassy in Caracas on Wednesday issued a statement urging all US citizens to avoid all areas affected by disturbances and rallies and to monitor news programmes that may indicate "changed circumstances".

The case has widened the already bitter political divide between Mr Chavez's allies and his foes.

Those who back the populist president say he has brought social justice to the vast underclass of poor, while his opponents accuse him of driving a wedge between the classes and of pushing the country towards recession.

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The BBC's Nick Miles
"It is the third time in a week there have been angry scenes"

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09 Aug 02 | Americas
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