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US: Audit of Venezuelan Recall Vote Key to Reconciliation - 2004-08-19

The State Department said Thursday U.S. officials are holding to their view that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won last Sunday's recall referendum. But it says a thorough probe of continuing claims of election fraud is important to settling the country's political crisis.

Officials here say that continuing charges from the Venezuelan opposition of voting-machine tampering and other fraud allegations have not shaken the U.S. view that Mr. Chavez won the recall election.

But at the same time, they are stressing the importance of the audit being conducted by staff members of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Atlanta-based Carter Center as a way helping bring about national reconciliation.

OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who monitored Sunday's vote, are overseeing a sample audit of 150 voting stations in response to continuing allegations of vote tampering.

Preliminary election returns, upheld by the international monitors, show that the controversial Venezuelan president handily turned back the challenge to his continued rule by collecting about 58 percent of the vote.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States believes the election fulfilled U.S. criteria for a transparent and constitutional process, but said it is important to "validate" the results through the audit in order to "move forward toward ending the political crisis."

"We urge the international observers to investigate, exhaustively, all credible concerns regarding the electoral fraud expressed by the opposition, and we likewise urge all those concerned about possible electoral fraud to present their evidence to the OAS and Carter Center," he said. "This is what is needed, I think, in order to reasonably and responsibly address the concerns, and resolve them in a way that serves the interests of all Venezuelans."

Some leaders of the anti-Chavez recall movement have said they would refuse to participate in, or recognize the results, of the review.

They claim that computerized touch-screen voting machines used in the referendum had been programmed to limit the number of votes cast against Mr. Chavez, and that the deception would be impossible for outsiders to detect.

Spokesmen Ereli said the international observers are taking the fraud charges seriously and investigating them, and that he does not know what more could be done to address the opposition grievances.