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Venezuelan Opposition Calls for National Unity, End to Violence - 2002-12-17

Opposition leaders in Venezuela are calling for national unity and an end to violence after security forces fired tear gas at anti-government protesters who blocked major thoroughfares in the capital.

Tensions that have been brewing for weeks reached a boiling point Monday as rock and bottle-hurling demonstrators squared off with police in several locations around the capital. Clouds of tear gas left people on their hands and knees, coughing and choking. Among those who could speak, many pleaded for peace.

The protesters, who continue to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chavez, took to the streets one day after the embattled leader announced that he has no intention of relinquishing power.

Opposition leaders immediately condemned police actions. Some reiterated their demand for President Chavez's ouster while others called on their countrymen to stop fighting each other. Eduardo Fernandez of the opposition Social Christian party said the time has come for Mr. Chavez to listen to the people in a spirit of national unity.

"Mr. Chavez, you have a historical and moral obligation to embrace dialogue," he said. "No more violence; no more deaths; no more bloodshed. He added that a consultation of the people's democratic will is urgently needed."

The opposition, which accuses President Chavez of ineptitude and a long list of abuses, is seeking a referendum on the leader's continued rule, or Mr. Chavez's outright resignation.

But a deputy in Venezuela's legislature, Chavez loyalist Tarek William Saab, says the president is not going anywhere, and that it is the opposition that is resorting to violence.

Mr. Saab says President Chavez will not resign. He says no democracy can sustain itself in the face of a group of people who use unconstitutional means and violence to try to overthrow a government.

Mr. Saab condemned a 15-day opposition-led national strike that has crippled Venezuela's oil production and brought many forms of commerce to a standstill.

For weeks, Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria has attempted to broker an accord between the two polarized camps, but so far has little to show for his efforts.