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Tuesday, 7 January, 2003, 19:53 GMT
Chavez supporters rally in Caracas
Supporters of the embattled Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, have been marching in the capital, Caracas, to protest against the deaths of two men at a demonstration on Friday.
As protests for and against the government continued over the weekend, Mr Chavez vowed to punish the killers and deal firmly with his opponents.
Venezuela is growing increasingly polarised as a general strike aimed at removing Mr Chavez enters its sixth week.
Correspondents say there is no end in sight to the stoppage which has severely affected food and fuel supplies in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
But oil minister Rafael Ramirez said that petrol production at the state-owned PDVSA was slowly being restored.
He said he would announce measures to reorganise the company later on Monday.
'Clamour for justice'
As pro-Chavez marchers paraded in the centre of the capital, thousands of anti-Chavez protesters held a march on the outskirts of Caracas.
He stopped short of announcing the measure during a televised speech late on Sunday, but insisted strike leaders, whom he described as "traitors", should be punished.
"I will act when the time comes, my right hand will not tremble, and even less so my left hand," he said.
Mr Chavez said the "violent fascists" who killed his supporters would be found "wherever they are, be it under rock".
"Venezuelans cannot keep dying with impunity. We are obligated to impart justice. The fatherland clamours for it."
The two men died in clashes involving thousands of rival demonstrators in Caracas and security forces, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas to separate the two sides.
Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel accused the capital's police force of "being at the service of the opposition".
Tensions between the government and the Caracas police have been growing since late last year, when the president tried to take command of the force which answers to the mayor.
In his speech on Sunday, President Chavez also lashed out at oil strikers and the media, which he said hailed strike leaders as heroes.
He vowed to crush the strike, which executives at PDVSA say has cut oil production from three million barrels daily to 300,000.
The government puts the figure at 800,000 barrels a day. It says the situation has been improving since the military were ordered to seize oil tankers and distribution lorries.
Although Venezuela has been forced to import petrol from Brazil and Trinidad, oil executives say the government is continuing to send fuel shipments to Cuba.
Exports to other countries are reportedly paralysed, and global oil prices have seen big rises.
Business leaders, unions and the opposition accuse Mr Chavez of plunging the country into recession and of trying to accumulate too much power.
They are demanding a referendum on his rule by next month and early elections.
But Mr Chavez says there can be no referendum until August.
Talks between the two sides - mediated by the Organization of American States - have so far failed to find common ground.
Have you been affected by the protests? Use the form at the bottom of the page to send us your comments.
The Venezuelan government headed by Mr Chavez has been undermined by the wealthy, as always happens when their interests are jeopardized. So much talk about democracy and the first ones that forget about it are the ones that are always crying for it. The same is going to happen in Brazil if President Lula starts doing something for the vast majority of the population.
Rob Robinson, USA
I am in complete agreement with President Chavez that the deaths of two pro-government supporters are tragic and should be fully investigated. However, neither the deaths nor the strike justify his threats of declaring a state of exception, which would allow him to suspend some constitutional guarantees. The government of Venezuela is already quasi-dictatorial with Mr. Chavez instructing the military to ignore judges and court rulings and obey only presidential decrees. By declaring a state of exception, Mr. Chavez would in fact be leading a autogolpe, a coup against his own elected government. I feel that Mr. Chavez needs to take a reflective examination of the Constitution and that he claims to defend before taking such drastic action that would undermine it.
My family lives in Caracas. They're visiting with us now and fear for their lives when they must return. There will be no mediation; Gaviria owes Chavez a favour and the people will not back down. Does Chavez actually believe that the opposition will settle for new elections in August? It is rather evident that opposition protesters will continue to abhor the man who has caused so much damage to the country and filled the minds of the people with empty promises. He is a clown and no-one is laughing; he must resign before a civil war ensues and more people die.
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