Earlier this month Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced the arrest of 100 Colombians he said were plotting to overthrow his government with the help of members of the Venezuelan opposition, a charge the opposition has fiercely denied. As VOA?s Serena Parker reports, human rights groups are warning of potential civil war in Venezuela.

After the arrest of more than 100 Colombians on the outskirts of Venezuela?s capital, President Hugo Chavez accused the Venezuelan opposition of collaborating with right-wing Colombian paramilitaries to overthrow him.

He also accused the United States of continued involvement in Venezuela?s internal politics, a charge State Department spokesman Richard Boucher vehemently denied.

?I know there have been some charges that somehow this is all part of a U.S. plot to overthrow the Chavez government,? he said. ?So before we get asked about it, let me say one more time that those kind of charges are baseless and irresponsible, and we categorically reject these kinds of outrageous statements and accusations.?

Opposition leaders in Venezuela say Mr. Chavez is trying to distract attention from their efforts to hold a recall vote to remove him from office. Under the country?s constitution, voters can recall unpopular elected officials ? including the president -- halfway through his or her term in office.

Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, says President Chavez should not use the arrests of the Colombian paramilitaries to prevent the referendum process from moving forward. ?The government should in fact cooperate with the recall referendum,? he says, ?which they put into the constitution, and let that be the mechanism to determine where the country goes over the next several years.?

Venezuela is at a crossroads. Forty-seven percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line. For many of them, President Chavez?s promise to improve their lives has earned him their undying loyalty. Meanwhile, his opponents accuse him of trying to hijack the country and turn it into a socialist state like Cuba.

A May 2003 accord between the government and opposition bound each side to find a constitutional and democratic solution to the political crisis that has overtaken this South American nation of 25 million people. But Mark Schneider warns that unless the international community continues to pressure both sides to abide by the constitution, there is high risk of a collapse of democratic institutions and perhaps of civil war.

?The concern is that if the government in some way rejects the signatures, then the opposition would undertake major, hopefully nonviolent, protests,? he says. ?And that these nonviolent protests would be suppressed by state security organizations in such a way which then would trigger an explosion.?

Venezuelan society is heavily armed. Many civilians carry guns and President Chavez recently said his government plans to train civilian militias to defend against foreign invasion. According to Eric Olson, Advocacy Director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, the government of Venezuela used excessive force in trying to quell anti-government protests in late February and early March. ?And in that process of quelling those protests,? he says, ?they appear to have committed not only beatings and torture of some citizens, but also there were the deaths of 14 people as a result of that violent confrontation.?

Eric Olson says Amnesty International is also concerned that the tactics the opposition has used on occasion only feed the cycle of violence. ?So we?ve called on them to desist from these violent protests and use of extralegal or illegal tactics and respect the political opinions of others,? he says. ?At the same time, we recognize that they have a legal right ? as any Venezuelan has ? to publicly state their political beliefs and protest if they like as long as it?s in conformity with Venezuelan law and international standards.?

Both Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group are urging groups like the Organization of America States, the Carter Center and the United Nations Development Program to remain active and seek alternatives to an armed clash in Venezuela.