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Anti-Chavez Venezuelan officers call for revolt
A dissident group of Venezuelan military officers rejected left-wing President Hugo Chavez's rule on Tuesday and called on the country's armed forces and civilian population to follow their example.
But the government quickly dismissed the officers' public call as "an absurd joke," saying the country remained calm more than six months after former paratrooper Chavez survived a short-lived coup by rebel generals and admirals.
The appeal by the 14 dissident officers, nearly all of whom are already facing court-martial inquiries for their alleged role in the April coup, revived fears of renewed military rebellion in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.
"Venezuelans, the time has come to end this tyranny and this dictatorship," Gen. Enrique Medina Gomez said in a statement he read out in front of 13 other uniformed officers from different branches of the armed forces.
After making their broadcast, Medina and the other officers went to a square in eastern Caracas, where they were surrounded by several thousand cheering supporters waving national flags.
The statement accused Chavez, who was elected in 1998, of dragging the military into politics, dividing Venezuelans with his left-wing policies and confrontational rule, and leading the country toward Cuban-style communism.
But government officials said the officers making the statement were already disgraced, had no troops under their command and had been sidelined from active duties following the April coup that briefly toppled Chavez.
"These are the same coup plotters who acted last April 11 ... they mean nothing," Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel told CNN in an interview from Caracas.
Witnesses said all appeared quiet around Fuerte Tiuna military headquarters in Caracas and there were no immediate reports of unusual troops movements.
Rangel insisted that all was calm in the barracks and said the dissident officers would be punished under military law.
The officers had declared the Altamira square in eastern Caracas "liberated territory of the institutional armed forces."
"This is a joke, it's absurd," Rangel said.
Medina told supporters at the square. "We won't leave here until the dictator leaves Miraflores (presidential palace)."
The dissident officers' broadcast came a day after opponents of Chavez staged a 12-hour nationwide strike to pressure the president to resign and call early elections.
Chavez, who was voted into power six years after himself staging a botched 1992 coup bid, has refused to step down.
Medina said the armed forces opposed the idea of a military coup and supported what he said was the desire of the majority of Venezuelans to see Chavez resign and hold early elections.
"We announce that we are declaring ourselves in legitimate disobedience, and we refuse to recognize the current regime," Medina said. "We call on all members of our national armed forces to accompany us in this mission."
Medina, an army general who before the April coup had served as his country's military attache in Washington, invoked Article 350 of Venezuela's constitution.
This article states that "The people of Venezuela ... will refuse to recognize any regime, legislation or authority which contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees, or violates human rights."
Medina urged the Venezuelan civilian population to declare itself "in civil disobedience" against the government, which he described as "authoritarian and delegitimized."
In the broadcast, the dissident officers accused Chavez of allowing corruption and mismanaging the economy, saying he had caused an increase in poverty, inflation and unemployment.
Despite facing possible court-martial, dissident officers like Medina have kept up a barrage of public criticism against the president since the April coup.
They have been allowed to keep on wearing their military uniforms and remain at home while the court-martial investigations against them continue.
Chavez has insisted since the coup that he has the support of the majority of the armed forces and the population.
"This is not going to have any echo in the armed forces ... The coup-plotters are using up their last cartridges," Chavez ally and National Assembly president Willian Lara said.
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