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Armed forces claim control, President Chavez reported to flee
( 2002-04-12 11:28 ) (7 )

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fled the country Thursday night, sources close to the opposition movement said, confirming local television reports.

Top military leaders said they had seized control after violent protests over the nation's oil policies left at least 12 people dead and more than 100 others wounded.

The head of the National Guard proclaimed that the military had taken control. "The government has abandoned its functions," the officer, Gen. Alberto Camacho Kairuz, who resigned earlier in the day as vice minister for security, said on local television in Caracas.

Chavez's reported escape came shortly after Army Cmdr. Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, head of the Venezuelan military, ordered his commanders to join him in rebellion.

"We ask the Venezuelan people's forgiveness for today's events," he said. "Mr. President, I was loyal to the end, but today's deaths cannot be tolerated."

More than 40 other senior officers joined Velasco's rebellion, including Kairuz.


The opposition sources said that Chavez boarded a private Falcon jet at La Carlota airport in Caracas. It was believed that he was bound for Cuba, but there was no independent confirmation, Saravia reported from Mexico City.

Chavez was forced out after a day of violence in which police fought pitched battles with more than 150,000 people demanding his ouster. Thursday was the third day of a nationwide general strike called to support oil executives who wanted Chavez to sack new management at the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela.

At least 12 people were killed and 110 were wounded, officials said. Unconfirmed reports said a police officer and a journalist had also been killed, according to reports by Reuters.

Chavez angrily accused the news media of inciting social unrest by exaggerating the size of a general strike this week and ordered five private Caracas television stations shut down. The stations continued transmitting by satellite, however.

National Guard troops fired tear gas to keep stick-bearing, rock-throwing marchers about 100 yards away from the palace and from thousands of Chavez supporters. Tear gas drifted into the presidential compound.

Several shots were fired near the palace, and scuffles with police erupted in several places downtown. Witnesses said snipers aligned with pro-Chavez street groups fired on crowds from rooftops. Caracas fire Cmdr. Rodolfo Briceno said snipers fired on ambulance crews as they tried to evacuate the wounded near the palace.

Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena accused government snipers of firing on crowds, especially opposition demonstrators. "Chavez has shown his true face," Pena said.


Executives at the state oil monopoly are conducting a work slowdown that has seriously cut production and exports in Venezuela, the No. 3 oil supplier to the United States and the No. 4 oil exporter in the world.

Petroleos management alleged that the appointments to the oversight board were based on political considerations, not merit. After six weeks of protests, Chavez fired seven executives Sunday and sent 12 others into early retirement.

The 950,000-barrel-per-day Paraguana refinery, one of the world's largest, ran at less than 50 percent capacity, and loading of tankers proceeded slowly, with at least 20 vessels anchored at main ports. The 130,000-barrel-per-day El Palito refinery will not reach full capacity until the weekend.

Industry officials said gasoline supplies to major cities could be threatened if the slowdown continued.

The International Energy Agency warned that Venezuela's crisis and political uncertainties in the Middle East could upset the oil market. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has said it has no plans to pump more oil to replace supplies being withheld by Iraq to protest Israel's offensive against Palestinians.

Revenues from state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, one of the world's largest oil companies, are the primary source for President Hugo Chavez's social spending. In 1999, Petroleos -- the country's largest employer -- had sales of $32.6 billion from oil and petrochemicals. A good deal of the revenues come from Venezuelan-owned CITGO Petroleum Corp., which owns gasoline stations throughout the United States.

Venezuela exported 57 percent of its oil to the United States in 1999, an amount believed to be largely the same last year. An additional 27 percent of Venezuelan oil went to the Caribbean, where much of it was refined and shipped to the United States. Venezuelan oil accounts for 14 percent of U.S. imports -- about 63 million gallons a day. Only Canada and Saudi Arabia provided the U.S. with more imported oil last year.

Venezuela currently has about 76 billion barrels of known reserves, which at its current OPEC production level of 2.9 million barrels a day would last about 69 years. Another 1.2 trillion barrels of extra heavy oil is estimated to be in the Orinoco belt, where production is just beginning. About 270 billion barrels of oil, which is about the equivalent of Saudi Arabia's known reserves, could be extracted from there, industry experts say.



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