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Anti-Chavez Strike Continues in Venezuela

Hundreds of demonstrators near Caracas blocked a freeway running past the main military air base of La Carlota Tuesday. The protests occurred after the national guard broke up an opposition rally with tear gas and plastic bullets.

According to spokesmen for the ruling Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) of President Hugo Chavez, the opposition's activities Tuesday, the second day of a national strike, formed part of "a terrorist plan" - a last-ditch effort to overthrow the government after the strike had failed.

The strike, called by the opposition in an attempt to persuade Mr. Chavez to call early elections, had indeed appeared to be running out of steam, despite efforts to enlist the workers in PDVSA, the state-owned oil corporation, which accounts for 70 per cent of Venezuela's foreign earnings.

However, in the early hours of Tuesday morning a group of armed men broke into the house of Juan Fernandez, the most prominent of the PDVSA dissidents. Holding Mr. Fernandez and his daughters at gunpoint, they told him, according to Mr. Fernandez, that "they had been sent to kill me."

Former interior minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin claimed Mr. Fernandez himself had orchestrated the incident to provide an excuse for street rallies. But the small, peaceful demonstration called to protest the attack was broken up without warning by the national guard, which used plastic bullets and tear gas against journalists on the scene.

It was this that sparked the later demonstrations and obliged opposition leaders to bring supporters onto the streets, while at the same time calling for calm.

Some, however, decided to block the freeway, and although the national guard initially responded with more gas, the troops were eventually withdrawn, leading to speculation that splits might once again be appearing among military commanders.