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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 August, 2004, 03:13 GMT 04:13 UK
Venezuela army officers arrested
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez
Chavez has vowed to defeat the opposition
A Venezuelan court has ordered the arrest of 59 military officers on charges of conspiracy, civil rebellion and instigating insurrection.

The men took part in a protest against President Hugo Chavez in October 2002 by taking over a square in Caracas and urging civil disobedience.

Some of those charged by judge Rita Hernandez also backed a failed coup against Mr Chavez in April 2002.

The move came two weeks ahead of a 15 August vote on Mr Chavez's rule.

Some of the officers had also been accused of being behind bombings of the Colombian and Spanish embassies in Caracas last year.

The officers' lawyer denied the men had been involved in any plots against the government.

Polarised nation

The arrest orders came a day after Venezuelan Interior Minister Lucas Rincon said he would step up security ahead of the referendum on whether Mr Chavez should remain in office.

Opposition supporters. Archive picture
The opposition is counting on disillusioned Chavez supporters

The president faces the recall after opposition gathered more than 2.4 million signatures to force the vote.

If Mr Chavez is defeated, an election will be held within 30 days.

The winner would serve out the remainder of Mr Chavez's current six-year term, which began in 2000.

Electoral authorities ruled last month that Mr Chavez could stand again in 2006, but did not say if he could do so immediately after the recall vote.

Mr Chavez has said he will stand for the country's highest office again if he loses the vote.

Correspondents say Venezuela has been bitterly polarised by more than five years of Mr Chavez.

His supporters praise him for improving the lives of the poor with extensive social programmes, while his opponents see him as a demagogue who draws inspiration from Fidel Castro's Cuba.

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