The Associated Press

The materials in the AP file were compiled by The Associated Press.

April 14, 2002, Sunday, BC cycle

SECTION: International News

HEADLINE: Interim president resigns in Venezuela after thousands protest to restore Chavez to power

By ANDREW SELSKY, Associated Press Writer


Venezuela's interim leader resigned Saturday after a single day in office as thousands of supporters of ousted President Hugo Chavez protested for his return.

Throngs crowded around the presidential palace in Caracas early Sunday after the announcement, setting off fire crackers as they waited in excitement for Chavez's anticipated return from military custody.

"Chavez is coming! Chavez is coming," said Dario Fereira, an unemployed man wearing a tattered shirt.

Just hours before, Interim President Pedro Carmona said over the radio: "Before the nation, before the Venezuelan people, I present this resignation." As Carmona made the announcement, gunfire rang in the streets in a third bloody day of upheaval that officials said left at least nine people dead and 40 injured on Saturday.

Venezuela, the No. 3 oil supplier to the United States, was left without a working government. Carmona said he was handing over power to the National Assembly, but Chavez's vice president, Diosdado Cabello, declared himself acting president until Chavez's return. Cabello was later shown on TV being sworn in.

Carmona had been named president by the military high command on Friday, the same day the generals had ousted Chavez after gunmen loyal to him fired on opposition demonstrators amid a general strike called to support dissident executives at the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela.

But it was a different group of demonstrators - those in favor of Chavez or opposed to his unconstitutional ouster - who forced Carmona to step down Saturday. Some pro-Chavez demonstrators took over state TV.

An army general, identified only by his surname Arrieta, appeared on state TV and predicted Chavez would return to power. Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias said Chavez was on Orchila Island off the Venezuelan coast, but officials said they expected Chavez's return to Caracas during the night.

A brief handwritten letter purportedly by Chavez was distributed by officials at the presidential palace after the ousted leader's ministers reoccupied the mansion.

"I have not renounced the legitimate power that the people have given me. Forever!" the letter said. Its authenticity could not be immediately confirmed.

Some military commanders had refused to accept the appointment of Carmona and Chavez's ouster and several Latin American leaders denounced Friday's irregular transition of power.

Washington had said Chavez was responsible for his own ouster because of attempts to violently suppress Thursday's demonstration against him. At least 16 people were killed and some 350 wounded in those clashes.

Chavez's government had angered U.S. officials by building close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro and criticizing the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

State television on Saturday showed Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez in the presidential palace informing interim ministers named by Carmona that they were being detained. Rodriguez said their actions would be investigated.

Members of Chavez's party applauded the "peaceful insurrection in the streets" that called for his return. Juan Barreto, parliamentary deputy in Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement, called for the protests continue.

"The tyrant has been deposed," Barreto said, referring to Carmona. He said Chavez remained in military custody.

Earlier in the day, police drove back smaller groups of protesters from the presidential palace with tear gas, and gunfire was heard in the nearby Catia slum, a Chavez stronghold.

"We want to see Chavez. The Venezuelan people don't buy it that he has resigned," shouted Maria Brito, a 36-year-old demonstrator.

As a massive crowd of protesters approached the palace at nightfall, there was no tear gas, and soldiers on a nearby roof urged the demonstrators on by pumping their fists and waving Venezuelan flags and their red berets, a symbol of Chavez's rule.

Bowing to a demand by restive army commanders, Carmona said earlier Saturday that Chavez will be allowed to leave the country and promised to reinstate the country's National Assembly, which he dissolved on Friday after being sworn in.

The army commander, Gen. Efrain Vasquez, made the demands at a news conference at a base on the outskirts of Caracas. The army "is doing what's necessary to immediately correct the errors committed in this transition process," Vasquez said.

Chavez is a former army paratroop colonel who led a failed 1992 coup but was elected in 1998 on an anti-poverty platform. Barreto said several military bases across the nation were under control of pro-Chavez forces.

He urged the dissolved National Assembly to report to the TV station and said Chavez's Cabinet was in the presidential palace with Cabello.

"Very soon we will have President Hugo Chavez directing, once again, affairs of state in Venezuela," said Labor Minister Iglesias.

Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena said at least nine people were killed and 40 wounded in various parts of the city Saturday. Police fired at pro-Chavez protesters in various Caracas slums.

A pathologist at the Caracas morgue said 30 bodies had been brought to the morgue overnight and into Saturday, most with bullet wounds. How the people were killed was not immediately clear.

"We have every right to protest, but they are gunning us down out there," said Edgar Paredes, his clothes soaked in blood as he brought his wounded brother to a hospital. He didn't know who shot Luis, and probably never will. Like most violent demonstrations here, gunfire can erupt from any side, at any time.

Jesse Chacon, president of the state telecommunications agency, said that private Venezuelan TV stations would be investigated for their actions during this week's upheaval.

Chacon condemned stations that failed to cover street disturbances and pro-Chavez protests on Friday and Saturday - suggesting they were trying to help the new regime.

The Venezuelan Workers Confederation - the 1-million member union that convoked this week's national general strike that led to Chavez's removal - withdrew its support for the new government because of Carmona's decision to dissolve Congress, said Jesus Urbietta, a director of the union.

"We were not consulted," Urbietta said. "What gives this government legitimacy is the existence of the National Assembly."

In Caracas, downtown shopkeepers hurriedly closed as word of isolated disruptions spread. At least 20 small disturbances were reported in Caracas, the new government said. Unrest also was reported in Maracay, Guarenas, Los Teques and Coro.

About 500 Chavez supporters also marched overnight on the army fort where Chavez was earlier held, facing off with soldiers and tanks, witnesses said. Troops fired rubber bullets, injuring some protesters, said Brito, the demonstrator.

In contrast to Chavez's strained relations with the United States, Venezuela's new foreign minister-designate had said Saturday he wanted tight relations with Washington.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Jose Rodriguez denied that Friday's swearing in of Carmona was a coup in disguise. Mexico, Argentina and Paraguay were among other Latin American countries that denounced the Carmona government as illegitimate.

(C) Associated Press * Reprinted for Fair Use Only