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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 August, 2004, 04:12 GMT 05:12 UK
Observers endorse Venezuela vote
Venezuelan protesters
The opposition has failed to oust Chavez despite its best efforts
International observers in Venezuela have confirmed President Hugo Chavez's victory in a referendum on whether he should be removed from office.

The former US president, Jimmy Carter, said Mr Chavez had won fairly, and the Organization of American States said it had not found any element of fraud.

With nearly all the votes counted, Mr Chavez has 58% backing him.

But his opponents insist the result was a "gigantic fraud" and have called for a manual recount.

Hundreds of Chavez opponents held demonstrations in the capital on Monday night. At one demonstration an elderly woman died and at least six other people were injured when gunmen on motorbikes opened fire.

Mr Chavez said those responsible for the killing would be tracked down and punished, whether or not they were his supporters.

For President Chavez: 58.25% (4,991,483 votes)
Against President Chavez: 41.74% (3,576,517 votes)

Mr Carter, who helped monitor Sunday's vote, said his team of observers had concluded there was a "clear difference in favour" of Mr Chavez.

The head of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, also said his monitors had not found "any element of fraud".

"Until elements of fraud emerge we are not going to put the results in doubt," he said.

But the US has declined to back Mr Chavez's apparent victory.

The US state department said it "noted" and praised the work of the observers, but said it would be premature to describe the outcome as a victory for Mr Chavez until the final result was announced.

A state department spokesman said the burden was on the Venezuelan opposition to produce evidence of misconduct during the vote - and if they did offer proof, the US wanted the claims thoroughly investigated by the county's election authority.

The BBC's state department correspondent Jill McGivering says Washington's priority is to prevent Venezuela descending into political chaos, not least because of the impact that might have on oil supplies and US petrol prices.

But she says Chavez supporters may also read something else into this delayed US reaction - a lack of enthusiasm for the political survival of someone they do not count as a friend.

Tally 'correct'

In Caracas, the BBC's James Menendez says the endorsement of the international observers will make it difficult for the opposition to take their grievances much further.

Mr Carter and Mr Gaviria have backed official results showing that with 94% of ballots counted, Mr Chavez had 58% of the vote.

Mr Carter said a "quick count" by his team of observers "coincided with the partial returns" announced by the National Elections Council.

Mr Chavez has insisted the vote was "clean and transparent".

President Chavez hailing the result
Chavez: "Victory for the people"
"What a great victory," he said.

But a spokesman for the Democratic Co-ordinator opposition coalition, Henry Ramos Allup, said fraud and "gross manipulation" had taken place.

Venezuela has been polarised since Mr Chavez won presidential elections in 1998.

His opponents, who are mostly white, middle-class and control most of the media and business, say he is authoritarian and has managed a rich economy badly.

Despite the country's oil wealth, 80% of Venezuelans are poor but Mr Chavez has won the hearts of many with extensive school and health programmes, analysts say.

The opposition has fought a tireless campaign to see him ousted. Mr Chavez survived a short-lived coup in April 2002 and a two-month strike that badly damaged the economy later that year.

The referendum was activated after the opposition collected signatures from 20% of the population - a recall mechanism inserted into the Venezuelan constitution by Mr Chavez in 1999.

The BBC's James Menendez
"Jimmy Carter's views carry a lot of weight in Venezuela"

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