One Death During Clashes Between Venezuelan Opposition Militants and Troops as G-15 Summit Starts

One death and thirty wounded was the result of clashes between opposition demonstrators and National Guard troops, as protesters attempted to march into the G-15 Summit

Editors note: Newly released medical reports indicate that the protest left one person instead of two, and more than 30 wounded instead of 18.

Sophisticated gas masks were used by opposition demonstrators seeking to oust Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, during clashes with National Guard toops.
Photo: Ernesto Navarro

Caracas, Venezuela. Feb 27, 2004 ( Militants from political parties opposed to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez attempted to march into the building where Presidents from 15 developing countries are meeting as part of the G-15 Summit in Caracas.

One person was reported dead and more than 30 wounded. Among the wounded are several supporters of President Chavez, and National Guard officers, but the majority were opposition demonstrators wounded by rubber bullets.

The demonstration was organized by opponents of the President to pressure the National Electoral Council (CNE) to approve a recall referendum on the President. The opposition claimed that the goal was to deliver a document to the G-15 presidents urging them to p ut pressure on the CNE to approve the recall.

Elections officials are currently counting and validating petitions collected by the opposition, but numerous irregularities have forced the officials to delay a decision, and ask people listed in petitions with irregularities to re-confirm their signature.

Opposition Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, of the Chacao municipality, has been accused of providing demonstrators with anti-gas masks like the one he used when trying to break the security perimeter that protected foreign delegations attending the G-15 Summit. The Summit took place outside of Lopez’s jurisdiction.
Photo: Venpres

Government authorities warned opposition politicians about the security perimeter established to protect the presidents and their delegations. Radical opposition militants decided to try to break the perimeter and clashed with National Guard officers who used tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent the demonstrators from advancing towards the building where the G-15 Summit was being held.

Chavez’s party headquarter torched by opponents

A local headquarter of President Chavez’s party Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) was torched by opposition militants. Antonio Ledezma, a leader of the Coordinadora Democratica (Democratic Coordinator) opposition coalition, was seen at the MVR headquarter giving orders to opposition militants. National Assembly deputy Francisco Ameliach sh owed pictures of his party’s building burned with Mr. Ledezma nearby. "This is the last time they do this to us," said Ameliach, who also announced legal action against the political leader. Last year, another MVR party building was burned by opposition militants.

A building of the pro-government Fatherland For All (PPT) party was also vandalized by opponents of Chavez.

Up to six opposition sharpshooters were detected by authorities hiding in rooftops near the demonstrations, according to National Assembly deputy Francisco Solorzano.

Sophisticated gas masks were used by opposition demonstrators seeking to oust Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, during clashes with National Guard toops.
Photo: Venpres

Opposition militants wore professional gas masks, prompting pro-government political commentators to claim that the opposition’s actions were well planned and financed.

TV footage showed officers from the opposition-controlled Metropolitan Police, helping the demonstrators as they changed locations to clash with National Guard troops. Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel said the government could take control of that police force for their anti-government actions. Several Metropolitan Police officers are facing trial for some of the deaths during the coupt d’ etat of April 2002.

Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader and Mayor of Venezuela´s wealthiest municipality (Chacao), leads demonstrators towards the perimeter set by authorities to protect foreign delegations attending the G-15 Summit.
Photo: Venpres

Interior Minister condemns violence

"They weren’t holding rosaries and bibles, they came with a violent attitude, holding sticks, bottles and stones, to confront the National Guard, which had to respond with tear gas to control the situation and guarantee order," said Interior Minister Lucas Rincon holding a police helmet stained with blood, and penetrated by a bullet shot by opposition demonstrators. "It wasn’t confetti what they threw at the troops," added Rincon.

Rincon, said there were five people detained with weapons without permits, and two police officers from opposition-controlled municipalities wearing body armor and holding weapons disguising in civilian clothes.

"The march achieved its goal," said the Coordinadora Democratica in a statement after the clashes. Opponents claimed that Chavez pretended to use the G-15 Summit as a propaganda platform.

Anti-Chavez demonstrators block traffic in south eastern Caracas to protest electoral authorities’ decision to ask people listed in petitions with irregularities to reconfirm their signature.
Photo: N. Heredia

The Coordinadora Democratica announced militant actions after the Electoral Council (CNE) announced that recall petitions with irregularities require re-confirmation by signers. The CNE decided to ask for reconfirmation instead of invalidating the petitions in order to defend the signers´ will. However, opponents accuse the CNE of dragging their feet to delay the referendum. Last Wednesday, opposition leaders said they no longer recognized the authority of electoral officials due to this decision.

Interior Vice-minister, Carlos Vettiol, commented that the government of Venezuela is obligated by international law to protect the integrity of the foreign delegations attending the summit. "We explained that to the opposition leaders, but they chosed not to hear us," said Vettiol.

The Attorney General, Isaias Rodríguez, and the Public Ombudsman, had sent public defenders to monitor the opposition march. Rodriguez said that the actions of the opposition "contradict the Constitution, the law, and the peace of the country."

Media offensive

Venezuelan commercial media ran ads inviting people to attend the "peaceful demonstration", and gave non stop coverage to the protests and clashes with authorities since early that morning. Government officials said the media coverage was reminiscent of the days before the coup d’etat of April 2002, and the lock-out and strike of late 2002.

"She what happened in Haiti? That’s what’s going to happen here," said an opposition political leader.

"Hugo: to stop me from protesting, you will have to kill me".
Photo: Ernesto Navarro

Opposition leaders appeared in the media encouraging supporters to continue demonstrating until Sunday, when electoral authorities are scheduled to announce how many petitions to demand the recall of several elected officials are valid.

Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel criticzied the local media, and international oulets such as CNN, for not showing any images of the demonstrator’s attacks against the security perimeter.

Opposition demonstrators attacks National Guard troops guarding the G-15 Summit. Commercial media outlets called the demonstration "peaceful", and argued that demonstrators were "provoked" by troops.
Photo: Ernesto Navarro

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