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Dispute Between Chavez and Mayor of Caracas Intensifies

The struggle between the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the opposition mayor of Caracas over control of the capital's police force intensified Sunday when national guard troops used tear gas to prevent the mayor from visiting a police barracks.

President Chavez has been trying to get his hands on the metropolitan police force of Caracas ever since Alfredo Pena, ironically a former political ally, became the first-ever elected mayor of the capital more than two years ago. The supreme court ruled then that the right to appoint the police director belonged to Mr. Pena, not Mr. Chavez.

For the past year, however, Venezuela has been embroiled in a serious political crisis. And control of the 9,000-strong metropolitan police has become ever more important, both to the government and the opposition.

In April, when a frustrated coup briefly ousted the president, there were accusations that the police deliberately opened fire on government supporters, leading to a firefight in which 19 people died. The opposition, however, says it was Mr. Chavez's followers who started the gun battle.

For the hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators who have repeatedly marched through Caracas, the metropolitan police represent crucial protection against pro-Chavez mobs. These same mobs, along with members of congress from Mr. Chavez's party, backed a strike by a minority of police personnel that began in October.

For Mayor Pena and the rest of the opposition, the strike was an excuse to take over the police force. And when it led to violence, and more deaths on the street last week, the intervention was not long in coming.

The mayor says it amounts to a coup d'etat and he refuses to recognize the government-appointed police chief. So, apparently, do most police men and women. The army and the national guard have been sent in to try to persuade them to switch allegiances.

The police crisis will be a major issue in negotiations between the government and the opposition over the future of the controversial Chavez regime, chaired by the secretary-general of the Organization of American States. For many in the opposition, the government's strategy is clear. It wants to provoke them into abandoning the talks. So far, however, they have refused to do so.