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Last Updated: Monday, 1 December, 2003, 21:07 GMT
Anti-Chavez drive deemed 'clean'
Venezuelan soldier stands guard as opposition supporters prepare to sign petition in Caracas
The opposition says the petition drive has been a success
Observers in Venezuela have rejected allegations of fraud during an opposition signature-gathering drive to end President Hugo Chavez's rule early.

Mr Chavez alleged some businesses had forced workers to sign the petition and other people had signed several times.

But Cesar Gaviria, who is leading the international monitoring mission, said the drive - ending on Monday - was going smoothly.

"The process has been democratic and... clean," Mr Gaviria said.

'Largely peaceful'

The opposition has accused Mr Chavez of authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement and they want him ousted before his term officially expires in 2006.

They require 2.4 million signatures - some 20% of the electorate - to trigger a vote.

Venezuelans poured out all over the country like an avalanche... The collection has been a total success
Enrique Mendoza
Miranda State Governor
The results will not be known until January but, if successful, a referendum could be held in the early months of next year.

The observers said the process has been largely peaceful, although there were reports of isolated incidents such as soldiers holding up petition signers through identity checks.

"It is probable that there have been incidents and tensions," Mr Gaviria, head of the Organisation of American States (OAS), told French news agency AFP.

"But people have been able to surmount them. People have been able to sign."

'Mega fraud' attempt

Government officials said turnout was low but opponents said some centres had run out of petition forms because of the sheer number of people wanting to sign.

"Venezuelans poured out all over the country like an avalanche... The collection has been a total success," said opposition governor of Miranda state, Enrique Mendoza.

On Sunday Mr Chavez accused the opposition of "an attempt at a mega-fraud" through the petition process.

Mr Chavez has promised to leave office if he loses a referendum but he has predicted that the chances of this happening are "almost zero".

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