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2 Dead in New Venezuela Clashes - 2003-01-04

Two people were killed and more than a dozen people injured Friday as supporters and opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez clashed once again on the streets of Caracas, where a general strike against the president is in its fifth week.

A series of marches convened by the opposition Democratic coordinator converged around midday Friday on an avenue near the Fuerte Tiuna military base dedicated to the memory of the country's independence heroes. Hundreds of supporters of Mr. Chavez were waiting for them, and small groups began hurling rocks and bottles at the initially peaceful opposition demonstration.

Although the national guard attempted to disperse the chavistas, as the president's supporters are known, they continually regrouped. Tear-gas and smoke from small fires on waste ground, apparently deliberately started by Mr Chavez's supporters, drifted across the scene. More tear-gas was hurled, this time by military police, when opposition marchers tried to cross army lines towards their planned destination.

The official reason for the march to Fuerte Tiuna was the detention there of a dissident national guard general, Carlos Alfonzo, who remains under house arrest despite a judicial order that he be freed. The government has declared the area a security zone, and insists marches must be cleared with the defense ministry.

After some hours of tension, gunfire broke out mid-afternoon, and several people were injured. There were conflicting versions as to where the shots came from, and reporters on nearby rooftops took cover at one point after the state TV channel broadcast claims that there could be snipers among them. Reporters denied the rumor. The Caracas metropolitan police, loyal to an opposition mayor, were also accused of opening fire.

Opposition marches have been almost daily events since a work stoppage and business strike began in early December in a bid to force Mr. Chavez to resign or call an early vote on his presidency. The strike has almost shut down the country's all-important oil industry, costing the country billions of dollars. But so far the president has refused to budge, saying no election can take place before the last quarter of this year, when the constitution provides for a recall referendum.