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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 21:51 GMT
Anti-Chavez drive claims success
Hugo Chavez
Observers have dismissed claims by Mr Chavez of election fraud
Venezuelan opposition leaders say they have collected just over 3.6 million votes calling for a referendum on President Hugo Chavez.

The official results will not be known until January, but if approved, a vote on the presidency could be held in March or April next year.

The president's opponents need 2.4 million signatures - a fifth of the electorate - to prompt a vote.

But President Chavez has again accused his opponents of cheating.

Mr Chavez said the government had evidence of fraud on a massive scale during a four-day signature-gathering drive by the opposition that ended on Monday.

He also condemned international observers for not supporting his allegations.

Bitter divide

Opponents want the president ousted before his term officially expires in 2006. They accuse Mr Chavez of authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement.

The BBC's James Menendez in Caracas says Mr Chavez still has strong support among the poor, but his opponents says his reforms are wrecking Venezuela's oil-rich economy.

The government is "disrespecting millions of Venezuelans," said Enrique Mendoza, the opposition governor of Miranda state.

"Don't do any more tricks to avoid a process that the majority of Venezuelans want."

The Organisation of American States, which was observing the signature campaign, said it was satisfied with the proceedings and described the process as democracy in action.

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

Venezuela's National Elections Council has got 30 days to verify the results once all the signatures have been handed in.

If a recall referendum is called, more people must vote against Mr Chavez than the 3.7 million who voted for him in 2000.

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".

The president survived a coup last year and a two-month national strike earlier this year.

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