Venezuela politicians exchange punches in parliament

Venezuelan politicians exchanged punches in parliament yesterday when a fight erupted between members of President Hugo Chavez's socialist party and rivals, in a sign of the nation's political polarisation.

The fighting began after Socialist party politician Henry Ventura tried to remove opposition member Alfonso Marquina from the speaker's podium. They were soon joined by several other politicians and parliamentary employees who shoved and punched one another for several minutes.

No one was hurt in the melee. It was not clear who started the fisticuffs.

"We came to work in peace, like we always do, and we hope that we are not subject to aggression for the words we say, like we were just now," Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said.

The brawl was broadcast live on all Venezuela's television and radio stations via an obligatory link-up system used frequently by Chavez to air his long speeches to the nation.

The broadcast was pulled abruptly from most networks after the violence started.

Venezuelans are deeply divided by the leftist president's programme to build a socialist society in the South American country of 28 million people. Chavez's popularity will be put to the test in a 2012 presidential election when he will run again.

The new National Assembly was formed in January after elections that returned a significant opposition presence to the legislative chamber after a five-year absence.

It is the first time the two sides have worked in such close confines since the opposition boycotted parliamentary elections in 2005, giving Chavez allies free rein to pass laws.

Although the new parliament has given the opposition a platform for its views, it has been effectively neutered by Chavez, who was granted decree powers in December to fast-track laws without parliamentary approval for 18 months.