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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 01:43 GMT 02:43 UK

World: Americas

Venezuela's Congress vows defiance

Police guard Caracas's parliamentary building where both bodies meet

Congressional leaders in Venezuela have vowed to convene on Friday in defiance of order from the country's constitutional assembly virtually shutting down the law making body.

The BBC's Peter Greste reports: It's not clear what will happen when Congress tries to meet
The head of the assembly, Luis Miquilena, said on Thursday that "measures have been taken" to prevent the meeting going ahead although he did not elaborate.

The assembly, which is controlled by supporters of President Hugo Chavez, issued a decree on Wednesday stripping Congress of almost all its powers, including the right to meet.

The decree restricts Congress to passing budgets and some administrative duties.

Democratic principles

[ image: President Chavez say reforms are needed to rid the country of corruption]
President Chavez say reforms are needed to rid the country of corruption
In Washington, the US State Department said it was "deeply concerned" at the move saying it was crucial that fundamental principles of democracy were preserved.

The move comes despite a Supreme Court ruling that the assembly was elected to do nothing more than re-write a constitution.

Opposition politicians, who control Congress, have described the assembly's moves as a coup against one of Latin America's oldest democracies and say President Chavez is using the body to assume dictatorial powers.

"Now there is no constitution, there is no Supreme Court and there is no Congress," said Jorge Olavarria, one of only six opposition delegates in the 131-seat constitutional assembly.

'Peaceful revolution'

South American legal experts have described the assembly's actions as a serious intervention in Venezuela's sovereign institutions.

[ image: Opinion polls show most Venezuelans, especially the poor, support Mr Chavez]
Opinion polls show most Venezuelans, especially the poor, support Mr Chavez
But President Chavez says the reforms are necessary to rid the country of corruption and begin what he calls a "peaceful revolution" by removing the remnants of the old political elite.

More than half of the country's 23 million population live in poverty despite the fact that Venezuela is said to have larger oil reserves than any country outside the Middle East.

The BBC's Latin America Correspondent, Peter Greste, says Congress's decision to meet sets the stage for a showdown in the parliament building in Caracas where the two bodies sit.

But he says opinion polls indicate that most Venezuelans back Mr Chavez's campaign.

Congressmen have said they fear that the national guard or supporters of President Chavez could surround parliament to stop them from entering.

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