2 Shot Dead During Protests in Caracas

From Associated Press

Street protests escalated in violence Friday as police struggled to separate battling supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez. At least two people were shot to death and 78 others injured in a melee that spread through a district of the capital.

The violence erupted when several hundred supporters of the president threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at thousands of opposition marchers and police in Los Proceres park, outside Caracas' Ft. Tiuna.

Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said two men died of gunshot wounds, though it was unclear who had fired. Five others had gunshot wounds and 73 were injured either by rocks or tear gas, he said.

The Chavez opponents were demanding the release of a dissident national guard general and urging the military to support a nearly 5-week-old strike aimed at forcing Chavez to resign or hold early elections.

Stinging white clouds of tear gas drifted through the district's tree-lined avenues as guardsmen fired the gas and buckshot at a plaza near the base, the armed forces' headquarters.

The unrest rekindled hours later, with protesters and police ducking behind trees and lying flat on the streets as gunfire rang out.

Among the injured were seven police officers, Police Chief Henry Vivas said.

Col. Jose Rodrigo Pantoja, commander of the military police, said marchers were not authorized to enter the plaza, which the government has declared a security zone -- one of eight in Caracas. He said soldiers acted only after the opposition march reached the plaza.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel blamed "irresponsible" march leaders for trying to enter the security zone.

"They tried to break through a security barrier, and that produced the clashes," Rangel said.

Opposition protesters demanded the release of Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, one of about 100 officers who revolted last fall. Martinez was arrested Dec. 30 without the required court order. A judge ordered his release, but he remains under house arrest.

Opposition leaders blame Chavez's leftist policies for deep economic troubles.

The strike has paralyzed oil production in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.

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