Venezuela Strike Leader Evades Police

From Associated Press

Secret police swooped in on an anti-government demonstration Saturday in Caracas in a failed attempt to arrest a strike leader who had emerged from hiding to address the rally.

The police fired shots into the air and launched tear gas canisters to disperse protesters, who smashed police vehicle windows, local television reported. There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.

Police rushed to the rally in eastern Caracas, the capital, trying to seize former oil executive Juan Fernandez, one of several leaders of a failed two-month general strike that aimed to force President Hugo Chavez's resignation or early elections. The strike ended early last month.

Fernandez warned Chavez to "pack his bag because we are going to get rid of him" and then was whisked away by supporters as protesters applauded wildly.

Chavez on Saturday accused his foes of committing high-profile crimes, including bombing Colombian and Spanish diplomatic missions in Caracas last month, in an attempt to smear his government. No one has been arrested for the blasts.

"By God and my mother, there will be justice!" Chavez shouted at a separate rally.

Chavez also praised last week's arrest of a man for the killings of three dissident soldiers and an anti-government activist, whose tortured bodies were found last month. Tayro Aristiguieta, who was arrested in a Caracas slum, confessed to the killings, Chavez said.

Detectives said the killings were not politically motivated, although protesters said they believe the government was behind the slayings.

Also Saturday, soldiers were sent into the streets to launch a government food distribution program selling discount staples at open-air markets in poor neighborhoods nationwide.

The initiative comes ahead of predicted food shortages, as opposition producers say they cannot continue operating under new government price controls.

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