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Chavez Opponents Deliver Referendum Petition

Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have presented electoral officials with at least three million signatures - enough to call for a referendum on his controversial rule.

Members of the opposition delivered the petition early Wednesday in Caracas to avoid clashes with supporters of the populist leader. Later, tens of thousands of flag-waving Venezuelans took to the streets in support of the referendum initiative.

President Chavez has repeatedly said many of the signatures are worthless and that his government will challenge the petition. The opposition needs the signatures of 20 percent of Venezuela's almost 12 million registered voters to request the binding referendum.

Wednesday's developments come one day after Mr. Chavez marked the mid-point of his current six-year term. The Venezuelan constitution allows a recall election to be held halfway through a president's term.

The recall drive is the third effort by the president's foes to remove him from office. In April 2002 he was briefly ousted in a failed military coup. Last December, the opposition called a general strike which lasted two months but failed to force him to resign and call early elections.

The opposition accuses the former paratrooper of wrecking the economy and of trying to model Venezuela after communist-run Cuba. Mr. Chavez blames the opposition for Venezuela's troubles and vows to resist all attempts to oust him.