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3 People Shot to Death During Venezuela Protest - 2002-12-07

In Venezuela, at least three people are reported dead and 18 others wounded when gunmen shot into a crowd gathered at a Caracas plaza where dissident military officers have been holding anti-government rallies. The incident happened as Venezuelan opposition leaders Friday announced the extension of a crippling general strike aimed at unseating populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The gunshots were fired after nightfall Friday into a crowd gathered at Plaza Francia in an upscale neighborhood of Caracas. Dissident military officers have been holding rallies at this plaza for more than a month, calling on Mr. Chavez to resign.

The scene following the shooting was one of chaos. People cowering on the ground, as medical emergency personnel rushed in to evacuate the bloody victims. Weeping relatives and friends accompanied their shot loved ones.

The gunshots rang out just as an opposition coalition made up of labor, business, and political parties was announcing the extension of a general strike for a sixth day. The strike has crippled the country's vital oil industry, slowing production and exports.

Members of the opposition coalition expressed shock and dismay at the shootings, and some were quick to blame the Chavez government. The head of Venezuela's Labor Confederation, Carlos Ortega, said the incident shows the world that President Chavez is an assassin.

This rhetoric was repudiated by Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who called it irresponsible. Mr. Rangel pledged the government will launch a full investigation. Authorities detained seven people in connection with shootings.

Friday's incident appears to confirm opposition fears expressed over the past days that radical supporters of President Chavez would use violence to try to derail the strike. They have accused the government of plotting such an incident. The government has denied this.

The head of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria who has been trying to mediate a peaceful solution to crisis late Friday appealed for calm on both sides.

The U.S. ambassador to Caracas Charles Shapiro issued a statement strongly condemning the shooting and urging the government to thoroughly investigate the matter. Mr. Shapiro also called on Venezuelans to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis.

Meantime, in other reaction top executives of the state-owned oil company PDVSA are reported to have resigned in protest to the violence. Many had joined the walkout in sympathy with the opposition demands crippling the operations of the giant petroleum company.

Oil accounts for 75 percent of exports, and half the government's income. Venezuela also is a main supplier of petroleum to the United States. Oil prices on international markets have already increased because of the impact of the Venezuelan crisis.

The opposition began the strike on Monday to force President Chavez to call early elections. The opposition accuses him of driving the country to ruin with his leftist economic and social policies. Mr. Chavez, in turn, accuses the opposition of trying to de-rail what he has called his social revolution.