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 Friday, 24 January, 2003, 00:41 GMT
One dead in Venezuela blast
Pro-Chavez rally in Caracas
Thousands of people rallied in support of Chavez
One person has been killed and at least 12 others wounded after a suspected bomb exploded near a pro-government rally in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

"This appeared to be an explosive device... unfortunately there is one person dead up to now," Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno told local radio.

I like him [Chavez] because he's a very honest man

Julio Altube, marcher
The blast happened a few blocks from where Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was greeting supporters.

Hundreds of thousands of people had gathered to protest against a seven-week strike organised by Mr Chavez's opponents.

The demonstration came a day after the Venezuelan Supreme Court suspended an opposition-backed referendum on whether the president should stay in office.

Opposition groups have accused Mr Chavez of behaving like a dictator and mismanaging the economy and have called on him to resign.

Cuban flags

Earlier, the demonstrators, chanting: "Hey, hey, Chavez is here to stay", poured into the city centre in a massive display of support for the beleaguered president.

Many of the marchers were brought in from the provinces in buses adorned with red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags.

Hugo Chavez
Chavez has refused to step down

Some of the protesters carried Cuban flags and portraits of left-wing revolutionary Che Guevara, reflecting Mr Chavez's ideology.

Despite the economic damage caused by the strike, opinion polls say 30% of Venezuelans still support their president.

"I like him [Chavez] because he's a very honest man," said marcher Julio Altube.

"You can really see that he feels for the poor. He really suffers. All the time he talks about love," he said.

Opposition supporters, who have staged equivalent demonstrations on an almost daily basis over the past few weeks stayed away on the instructions of their leaders.

At least six people have been killed in clashes between rival protesters since the strike began last December.

The strike has crippled Venezuela's oil production and driven the country to the brink of collapse.

Crisis meeting

The huge rally came a day before the six-nation Group of Friends was due to hold its first meeting to try to help Venezuela find a way out of the crisis.

Woman waits in queue for gasoline
The strike has crippled on oil and petrol output

The group - Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States - will consider two plans presented by former US President Jimmy Carter to end the strike and hold early elections.

The BBC's Adam Easton in Caracas says that as a strategic supplier of fuel to the United States, Venezuela is coming under increasing international pressure to resolve the strike.

But there is precious little trust between the government and opposition.

At the moment, neither side appears prepared to give in.

Mr Chavez was handed a victory on Wednesday when the Supreme Court postponed the referendum scheduled for 2 February, six months before a binding referendum is due.


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