Dissident officers stir revolt in Venezuela

James Anderson,Ap,In Caracas
Thursday 24 October 2002 00:00 BST
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A key division of the Venezuelan army was put on alert yesterday after 14 dissident officers called for a rebellion against President Hugo Chavez, prompting another round of protests for and against the President.

General Raul Baduel, one of the most powerful figures in the military, said his division in the central city of Maracay was "ready to act at any moment, anywhere" to guarantee constitutional order.

His warning came after thousands took part in a rally in the capital, Caracas, where the dissident officers denounced the President. General Nestor Gonzalez, former chief of the army school, accused the left-wing President of seeking to impose "a Castro-style totalitarian regime" in Venezuela.

Smaller opposition protests took place in several cities while Chavez supporters, converged on the presidential palace in Caracas.

The government said the dissidents, from the army, air force, navy and national guard, were involved in the April coup against the President and were trying again. It insisted that Venezuela was calm and that the military stood firmly behind President Chavez. It also claimed to have foiled two plots to assassinate the President since Saturday.

In a message to the dissidents, as well as to troops, Jose Luis Prieto, the Defence Minister, said: "A coup d'etat won't be accepted by any of us, neither the government sector nor the opposition. Nor will it be accepted by the international community."

Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel said: "We've been in contact with every barracks throughout the country, with every command ... and there is absolutely nothing happening. Every commander totally repudiated these coup plotters who decided to go on an adventure."

The military has been divided since dissident generals ousted President Chavez after 19 people were killed in during an opposition march on 11 April. Troops led by General Baduel saved President Chavez from probable exile in Cuba and restored him to power on 14 April after the interim president, Pedro Carmona, dissolved the constitution. After the coup, President Chavez purged the armed forces of suspect officers and promoted loyalist junior officers to senior posts, causing more unrest in the ranks.

On Tuesday, secret police agents raided the home of General Rommel Fuenmayor, former chief of the army's munitions company. The agents were surrounded by citizens shouting "Leave! Leave!" General Fuenmayor condemned the raid, declaring, "I'm not a coup plotter!"

The Organisation of American States, which has tried to broker peace talks, warned against a coup. Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general, said the dissidents' actions "betray the constitutional loyalty that officials of the armed forces owe to President Chavez".

The United States has made clear its opposition to any use of force either to oust or preserve the democratically elected government of President Chavez.

Venezuela's Democratic Co-ordinator, a group of opposition parties and civic groups that backed Monday's general strike, also distanced itself from any coup attempt.

The opposition is calling for a non-binding referendum on President Chavez's rule on 4 December in the hope of embarrassing the President into resigning.

President Chavez, whose term ends in 2007, opposes the December vote but has welcomed the possibility of a binding referendum next August, confident that he can beat any challengers.

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