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Chavez lashes out at Bush as opposition negotiates on recall
Updated: 2004-03-06 09:19

Venezuela's embattled President Hugo Chavez lashed out at the United States, charging that US President George W. Bush is bankrolling opposition efforts to oust him.

"We have enough proof that Mr. Bush continues to finance terrorist and putschist groups in Venezuela," an animated Chavez told a gathering of foreign diplomats that did not include the US ambassador.

Chavez has long accused Washington of backing the opposition, which has tried to oust him twice -- in a nationwide strike last year, and in an aborted 2002 coup.

A new crisis erupted after the National Electoral Council said this week that only 1.8 million of the 3.1 millions signatures collected by the opposition to demand a recall referendum were valid. Some 2.4 million valid names were needed for a referendum to be called.

At least eight people have been killed in political unrest since, and dozens more hurt.

With a protest march looming for Saturday, opposition members continued negotiating Friday on how signature verification might be carried out.

In Washington the State Department urged Venezuela's government to avoid excessive use of force ahead of Saturday's planned demonstration.

"We note with concern the violence in Venezuela. We urge the government of Venezuela to respect the Venezuelan people's peaceful exercise of their constitutional rights and to avoid the use of excessive force," department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

"We also call on the protesters to act in a nonviolent manner, including during demonstrations planned for this weekend," he said.

As the opposition here pressed efforts to have a vote scheduled that could cut his term short, Chavez told the diplomats the US president should "get his hands off Venezuela."

Back in 1992 "many Venezuelan military staff said US helicopters and warships were in Venezuelan waters and skies violating national sovereignty. How long are we going to have this going on? How far will the hypocrisy go?"

He called on the international community to "speak out in defense of national sovereignty, and if not we might as well make a bonfire and burn our institutions."

Venezuela's UN ambassador Milos Alcalay on Thursday quit his job in protest against the Chavez government's handling of the crisis, further undercutting the president's international standing.

"There is a national and international campaign to hurt the government's standing and say that it is a human rights violator," Chavez said, showing ambassadors videos of protest demonstrations.

Chavez also reiterated his position that if electoral officials confirm more than 600,000 questioned signatures on petitions seeking a recall referendum then there would be a referendum, and if he loses he will step down.

"If there were a referendum and the opposition were to win, I would leave the government," Chavez said, exclaiming "I am a democrat! I believe in democracy and the constitution. I am not going to not respect it."

But he added, signature verification was necessary before any possible vote.

Separately, Chavez said "Venezuela categorically rejects the kidnapping of (Haitian) president (Jean Bertrand) Aristide," which he said was engineered by the US government. Aristide stepped down Sunday after pressure from armed rebels, the United States and France. The United States says Aristide went willingly.

If Chavez, a leftist-populist former paratrooper, were ousted in a referendum, Venezuela's Constitution calls for a vote to elect a new president within 30 days.

However, if a referendum were held after August 19 and Chavez lost, new elections would not be called. The vice president would assume power until 2006, when Chavez's current term ends.

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