Opposition stages largest march yet in battle for Venezuela's presidency

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Thousands of people converged on central Caracas waving Venezuelan flags and pounding drums in the biggest show of support yet for the main opposition presidential candidate.

Manuel Rosales, the governor of oil-rich Zulia state, called Saturday's rally an "opposition avalanche" and pledged to undo what he called the ills of President Hugo Chavez's government.

Mr Rosales accused the government of mismanaging the country's oil wealth and ignoring crime, while also playing on fears that Mr Chavez's close friendship with the Cuban leader Fidel Castro was leading Venezuela down the same path as the communist island.

"They say the Venezuelan people rule. That's a lie," said Mr Rosales. "[We have] a government that is a puppet of a communist, totalitarian system. We have a government that is governing from Cuba. This government is already eight years old. It's an old, bad, lying government, and it must go," he said.

Venezuelan authorities said they would have as many as 2,500 police officers on the streets to ensure security amid concerns about violence as Mr Rosales' supporters crossed sectors of the capital that are pro-Chavez.

A government helicopter flew overhead and a heavy police presence was on hand, but there were no reports of disturbances. Caracas's metropolitan police estimated the crowd at about 9,000, and reporters on the scene estimated the turnout at more than 10,000. The crowd packed a 3km-long avenue.

"I'm marching for a different future, for better education," said Julia Pena, 50, a teacher, who came out to show her support for the opposition for the first time since April 2002, when a short-lived coup toppled Mr Chavez before he returned amid a popular uprising.

Mr Rosales slammed the government's record on crime, claiming that murders, kidnappings and other crimes in the South American country have sharply risen since Mr Chavez took office in 1999 - an issue that recent polls show is a top concern among Venezuelans.

He also accused Mr Chavez of giving away millions in aid and donations to countries around the world, while Venezuelans remain impoverished.

"There is a paradox in this country: poor people and a very rich government. The people don't want any more crumbs," he said as he pledged to usher in a government that would distribute Venezuela's oil wealth at home and improve the investment climate.

Mr Rosales also appeared to rule out the possibility of a boycott of the presidential election on 3 December, urging people to vote despite worries about transparency and electronic voting machines. Major opposition parties boycotted congressional elections last year over such concerns.

"We must vote ... and not believe in the threats of the government," he said. "That doesn't help anybody."