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Protesters stop arrest of Venezuela general
Protesters beating pots and pans stopped armed Venezuelan security agents on Wednesday from detaining a dissident army general who criticized President Hugo Chavez hours before a planned opposition march in Caracas, witnesses said.
The incident, in which a crowd of east Caracas residents took to the streets in defense of Gen. Manuel Rosendo, stoked tensions in the politically polarized country as it braced for Thursday's demonstration, called to demand early elections.
Chavez's government and its opponents accused each other of planning violent actions six months after a coup by rebel officers in April that briefly toppled the left-wing populist president in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
Rosendo, who faces a court martial for his alleged role in the April 11-14 coup, had earlier criticized Chavez as a dangerous extremist and appealed to his armed forces colleagues not to act against Thursday's opposition march.
Shortly after he spoke to reporters in a Caracas hotel, an armed posse of government security agents tried to arrest the general in the street in Caracas' Los Palos Grandes district.
They were thwarted by angry local residents who surrounded Rosendo, chanting his name, waving national flags and beating pots and pans in protest. The government agents withdrew.
In earlier government measures, the armed forces stepped up security in Caracas, including the deployment of tanks to protect the presidential palace and strategic military sites.
The tanks were kept out of sight inside the installations, but National Guard troops patrolled the streets and an atmosphere of tense expectation gripped the capital.
Rosendo is one of about 300 anti-Chavez officers who are under investigation and sidelined from active command duties for their alleged role in the April coup.
Several of these officers made public statements on Wednesday urging the rest of the armed forces not to obey any government orders to repress Thursday's opposition protest. They also called for a big turnout in the anti-government march.
FEARS OF VIOLENCE
Six months ago, Rosendo, a former Chavez ally, defied a direct April 11 order from the president to deploy tanks and troops against a huge anti-government march.
The April march was broken up by gunfire near the Miraflores presidential palace. At least 19 people were killed, triggering a rebellion by several hundred officers, who deposed Chavez for 48 hours. He was later restored by loyal troops amid street protests in which more than 60 people were killed.
Chavez, an outspoken former paratrooper who was elected in 1998, accused his civilian and military foes on Wednesday of plotting another rebellion against him. He said Thursday's opposition march was part of that plot.
"They mustn't think that behind the march they're going to be able to stage a coup. No. The people and the armed forces are on the alert," Chavez said in a speech to retired military officers. He charged that "a fascist and coup-plotting oligarchy" was still trying to overthrow him.
Opponents of the president contend he is leading Venezuela toward Cuban-style Communism. They said the government's anti-opposition crackdown was a ploy to try to provoke violence before or during Thursday's march.
"The government is the one which wants violence," Carlos Fernandez, president of the anti-Chavez private business association Fedecamaras, told reporters.
Foes say Chavez would use any violence as an excuse to introduce emergency powers to push through his self-styled "revolution," which includes left-leaning economic reforms and increased state intervention in the oil-rich economy.
"This is a dictatorship disguised as a democracy," said another anti-Chavez military officer, Gen. Enrique Medina.
Opposition leaders insisted Thursday's march would be peaceful. Most of them have said they shun violence or a coup and will try to remove the president by constitutional means.
But Chavez, who staged his own botched 1992 coup bid six years before being elected president, has ruled out calling an early election. Fernandez said the opposition would have to continue its protests, including a possible nationwide strike.
The United States, Venezuela's main oil market, and international organizations have expressed concern the unrelenting political feuding could erupt into violence.
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