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 Saturday, 4 January, 2003, 09:55 GMT
Two shot dead in Venezuela clashes
An opposition protester hits a policeman during clashes
Security forces clashed with rival demonstrators
At least two people have died of gunshot wounds following clashes between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez in the Venezuelan capital Caracas.

Opposition supporters wave flags as they parade down to Fuerte Tiuna in Caracas
The opposition wants Chavez to step down or call early elections

The two died in hospital, Caracas health service chief Pedro Aristimuno told Venezuela's Globovision television.

A total of six people sustained bullet wounds in the clashes, according to the television station.

Pitched battles erupted between thousands of rival demonstrators in Caracas, during which security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas to separate the two sides.

Then shots were fired by unidentified gunmen at opposition marchers as they clashed with government supporters near the city's main military base.

At least 12 people, including seven police officers, were injured by stones or bottles.

Barricades

The trouble started when opposition demonstrators marched to the city's main barracks, calling for the release of a dissident officer, General Carlos Alfonso Martinez of the National Guard.

They also urged the armed forces to support their campaign against President Chavez.

Click to see pictures from the clashes

They were confronted by Chavez supporters, who began throwing stones, bottles and fireworks.

Barricades of burning tyres and rubbish set up by the Chavez supporters sent smoke billowing across the city.

'Latin Opec'

A crippling strike aimed at forcing Mr Chavez to step down or call early elections is now in its second month.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Chavez says the strikers have "a date with defeat"

The Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Cesar Gaviria, said on Friday that talks between Mr Chavez's government and the opposition had failed to produce a firm agreement on holding a referendum on the president's rule.

Mr Chavez has suggested the formation of a "group of nation friends", comprised of representatives from the Americas and Europe, which would enlist diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.

But the Bush administration has already rejected this call, saying mediation attempts by the OAS should suffice.

Mr Chavez has also urged Venezuela's neighbours to come to the rescue of its beleaguered oil industry, by forming a "Latin Opec" or a regional cartel of oil exporters. It would consist of state oil firms from Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago.

'Date with defeat'

Mr Chavez has stressed his government's determination to defeat the strike which has slashed the country's oil output.

He said the strikers "have a date with defeat" and accused their leaders of plotting a coup.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and the 32-day-old stoppage has helped push oil prices to two-year highs as US stockpiles have fallen to 26-year lows.

But the alliance of business, trade unions and opposition parties who want early elections to remove him from office have issued tough public statements.

His opponents have even threatened a tax revolt, a dire prospect in a country where vital oil revenues have collapsed.

Mr Chavez, who was elected to serve until 2007, has consistently rejected the opposition's demand for him to stand down or hold early elections.

He says the earliest constitutional date for a referendum would be August 2003 - half way through his term of office.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Gillian Ni Cheallaigh
"It's difficult to tell who's shooting at who"

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