Sunday, May 25, 2003

Gunfire Erupts at Venezuela Rally, Killing One
CARACAS, Venezuela, May 24 (Reuters) — One person was killed and 15 were wounded by gunfire that broke out during a rally held by foes of President Hugo Chávez in a pro-Chávez district of Caracas today, officials said.

Three of the wounded were National Guard soldiers whose patrol came under fire as they took up positions in a security operation to try to prevent violence at the opposition rally.

Government and opposition representatives blamed each other for the shootings.

The gunfire erupted as several hundred supporters of the opposition Democratic Action Party held a rally in a narrow street in Catia, a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood that is a bastion of support for Mr. Chávez.

"This country doesn't just belong to Chávez supporters, but to all Venezuelans," said one of the demonstrators, Ana Maria Colmenares.

Mr. Chávez's opponents accuse him of ruling like a dictator and of trying to install Cuban-style communism in Venezuela, the world's fifth leading oil exporter.

Witnesses said some of the shots appeared to have come from side streets where groups of Chávez supporters had gathered to shout insults at the opposition protesters.

The violence broke out a day after government and opposition negotiators announced they had agreed to a pact to hold a referendum on Mr. Chávez's rule after Aug. 19.

The agreement aims to end months of conflict in Venezuela over Mr. Chávez's presidency. He was elected in late 1998 and survived a brief uprising last year.

Vice President José Vicente Rangel told reporters that 1 person had been killed in the shootings and 15 more wounded, including three National Guard troops.

The authorities had sent 2,000 police officers and troops to the area of sprawling hilltop slum neighborhoods in west Caracas where the rally was to take place.

It was not clear whether the violence might affect the formal signing of the referendum pact, which was scheduled to take place here in the coming week in the presence of the secretary general of the Organization of American States, César Gaviria.

Mr. Chávez, who has said he is willing to submit to the recall referendum allowed under the Constitution, was attending a meeting of Latin American presidents in Peru.