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Chavez talks peace but warns US over oil supplies
Updated: 2004-03-08 08:54

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged his foes on Sunday to peacefully seek a referendum against him and he warned Washington to stop backing anti-government protests he said could affect oil supplies to the United States.

In a rambling five-hour broadcast that mixed threats with appeals, the leader said he regretted the deaths of at least eight people in the recent street protests by opponents demanding that he submit to a recall vote.

He once again accused U.S. President Bush's government of financing efforts to oust him and recalled that Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, was traditionally a leading supplier of oil to the U.S. market.

"So what is it this (U.S.) government is trying to do? Destabilize its secure (oil) supplier?" Chavez asked during his weekly "Hello President" television and radio show.

He said the recent anti-government protests were "made in the USA." Venezuelan oil exports were not affected by them.

U.S. officials have dismissed Chavez's repeated accusations as an attempt to divert attention from his domestic problems. They say Washington supports peaceful elections in Venezuela.

An uneasy calm has returned to the South American oil producer after it was shaken for nearly a week after Feb. 27 by clashes between troops and pro-referendum protesters.

At least eight people were shot dead, nearly 200 injured and dozens arrested in what opposition leaders condemned as heavy-handed government repression. They accuse pro-Chavez electoral officials of blocking their referendum petition.

Chavez, a former paratrooper elected in 1998, called on his opponents to abandon what he called "armed subversion" and to try to ratify around one million disputed pro-referendum signatures to obtain a constitutional vote on his rule.

"I'm telling the opposition leaders, they won't achieve anything by waging war. ... I invite them to continue the constitutional path," he said.

But he repeated his view that the referendum bid was a "mega-fraud" doomed to failure.

Since the violence subsided Thursday, opposition leaders have started a dialogue with the National Electoral Council on how to organize a process for voters to reconfirm this month signatures questioned by the electoral authority.

This has brought a temporary respite to the violent protests, but the referendum dispute looks set to rumble on.


"We're trying to exhaust all avenues that will respect the citizens' votes," said Enrique Mendoza of the opposition Democratic Coordinator coalition.

The electoral council has only validated 1.8 million pro-referendum signatures so far, short of the 2.4 million required for a poll. The opposition says it collected 3.4 million signatures.

Several hundred thousand opposition supporters held a peaceful pro-referendum march in Caracas Saturday. They accuse Chavez of ruling like a dictator and of trying to impose Cuba-style Communism in Venezuela.

Noting that Haiti's former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had accused Washington of forcing him from power this month, Chavez warned the Bush government not to try to invade Venezuela or replace him.

"If that happens, the U.S. people can forget about getting Venezuelan oil," he said.

Washington has dismissed Aristide's assertion.

Chavez, who purged Venezuela's armed forces of opponents after he survived a brief 2002 coup, said he would not hesitate to use the military to arrest opposition governors or mayors if they organized a rebellion.

"I have nerves of steel, you know," he said.

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