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Chavez Opponents, Supporters Stage Rival Marches in Venezuelan Capital - 2002-12-08

In Venezuela, opponents and supporters of populist President Hugo Chavez have staged rival marches through the capital city one day after deadly violence at an opposition rally in a Caracas plaza. The country is still in shock over the murders which, like everything else in the current crisis, have been politicized.

Prayers were held at the Plaza Francia in the upscale neighborhood of Altamira Saturday where less than 24 hours earlier shots were fired into a crowd of opposition demonstrators.

Huge bouquets of flowers rose from roped off areas where the victims fell, including an elderly woman, and a teenage girl. Beneath the flowers, pictures of Catholic saints, cards, and other mementos were scattered on the pavement, still stained with blood.

Dressmaker Micheline Medina was among those standing before one of the bouquets, tears in her eyes as she stood next to her daughter. "It's a tragedy," she said, because it was a 17-year old girl who only came to demonstrate against the disaster that is happening in this country, and they kill her. As she spoke, she held her 11 year old daughter tight in her arms.

Roberto, a student standing nearby, said he felt several emotions. "I feel very sad, I feel angry, but my heart feels that I need to resolve, to resolve this problem," he said.

The problem for Roberto and for much of the country is Mr. Chavez and his left wing policies. Many at Plaza Francia also say they have no faith that government authorities will conduct a fair investigation of Friday's shootings which occurred as the opposition announced the extension of their general strike for a sixth day.

Police are holding a Portuguese-born taxi driver, who has confessed to the shootings. Six other men are being held in connection with the incident, but their role is unclear.

Opposition leaders accuse President Chavez of plotting the killings in an attempt destabilize the anti-government movement.

But President Chavez and his top officials have denied these accusations, calling them irresponsible. Addressing his supporters Saturday, Mr. Chavez said the opposition did not even wait for the conclusion of the investigations before accusing him of the shootings.

Earlier at the rally Saturday, which was called to celebrate his election as president in 1998, the mood was buoyant as tens of thousand of people marched through the streets of the president's palace.

But Chavez supporter Elinor Cesile said for her, the celebrations are mixed with sadness over what happened Friday on the other side of the city. "You can see, you can see everybody is singing and dancing, everybody's really happy, but we are also in a big pain for the people [who were killed]. I mean it is our people too," she said.

But other supporters of the populist president were quick to blame the opposition for the murders, saying it was a plot to smear the government. Gilberto Colambriez, a public sector worker, said the killings were carried to show that Venezuela is in state of crisis. "The opposition are the ones," he said, "who want to paint a situation of chaos in this country."

Meantime, the opposition Saturday staged a massive silent march through Caracas to honor the memory of those slain and wounded, and to demand the resignation of Mr. Chavez. Many wore black clothing, and carried tiny Venezuelan flags at half mast.

The opposition-led strike, which has crippled Venezuela's oil industry, shows no sign of ending soon. Following Friday's killings, key members of the opposition say they are now demanding Mr. Chavez step down. When the strike began Monday, the opposition wanted the Venezuelan leader to agree to early elections to cut short his six year term.