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Sunday, 20 October, 2002, 22:23 GMT 23:23 UK
Chavez 'foils assassination plot'
President Hugo Chavez
Chavez survived a coup earlier this year
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said he escaped an assassination attempt against him this weekend as he was returning from a trip to Europe.

Security forces foiled a plot to shoot down his plane, the leftist leader said in his weekly broadcast to the nation.

They were hunting us, waiting for us

Hugo Chavez
Opposition groups have called a 12-hour general strike on Monday to demand either the resignation of Mr Chavez or early elections.

The presidential plane was diverted from Maiquetia airport outside Caracas to a military air base to the west of the capital, the president said, after a tip-off from the interior minister.

"The boys told me that Diosdado [Cabello] was calling me and recommended that I not land [at Maiquetia] but at Liberator air base," Mr Chavez said.

According to the president, security agents intercepted a group of armed men near Maiquetia on Friday night and a gunfight ensued.

The plotters escaped, he said, but left a Swedish-made AT4 bazooka - a weapon used by Venezuela's army - and a map showing the flight path of the presidential plane.

A diary and a mobile phone containing the numbers and names of "civilian and military coup-plotters" were also recovered, but Mr Chavez gave no details saying an investigation was under way.

"They were hunting us, waiting for us," he said.

Strike splits country

Monday's general strike has been called by labour and business leaders, backed by opposition political parties and dissident military officers.

Riot policeman aims tear-gas round in Caracas
About 3,000 extra troops are being deployed in Caracas for the strike
The stoppage is expected to be backed by airlines, shops, private schools, factories, farmers and most food stores, as well as much of the press, and public hospitals plan to attend only to emergencies.

Those opposing the strike include public school teachers, transport workers, banks and petrol stations.

The powerful oil union, Fedepetrol, is split on how to react with some leaders urging support and others pointing to recent pay rise of 35% awarded last month by the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela.

Opposition groups have accused the government and its supporters of trying to intimidate people into rejecting the strike.

Violent history

The Venezuelan leader, who himself first tried to take power in coup in 1992 before being legally elected in 1998, has frequently spoken of plots to overthrow him.

A coup in April of this year removed him briefly but he returned to power within days on a wave of popular support, mainly from Venezuela's poorer citizens.

In his years in office, Mr Chavez, an admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro, has antagonised various sections of his oil-rich country's society, including business leaders and the clergy.

But he continues to enjoy mass popular support as a rally last Sunday showed, when hundreds of thousands turned out.

He has brushed off Monday's strike, predicting that only a handful of Venezuelans would stay home.

"The strike, it's safe to say, has already failed," he said.

The BBC's Emily Buchanan
"More people reported to work than in previous general strikes"

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