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Tension rises in Venezuela as president and opponents defy foreign pressure to end political standoff

Updated:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Supporters and foes of President Hugo Chavez called for more street demonstrations Friday, hours after police used tear gas to disperse a clash between the two sides.

The White House added to the pressure on Chavez to call early elections, cautioning Friday of more polarization and violence if negotiations do not produce results soon.

``The United States is convinced that the only peaceful and politically viable path out of the crisis is through the holding of early elections,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement.

The U.S. State Department sent Thomas Shannon, deputy assistant secretary of state, to Venezuela. He met Friday with Venezuela's foreign minister.

But chief mediator Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, indicated negotiations were not producing results.

``The sides are not close to finding a solution,'' he said.

Chavez supporters held a rally around the presidential palace to commemorate eight months since the president's return to power after an April 12 coup. Opposition leaders said the Chavez rally was a government attempt to put up human shields to protect the president.

They too pledged to return to the streets Friday, the 12th day of a crippling general strike they launched in a bid to oust Chavez and his leftist government. The strike has paralyzed the world's fifth largest oil exporting nation, a key U.S. supplier.

``The national strike is just beginning,'' declared strike organizer Carlos Fernandez of the business group Fedecamaras, which joined with the country's 1-million-strong workers' confederation to wage the third general strike against Chavez in a year.

He warned there would soon be new shortages of basic goods and gasoline because of the strike, which has triggered panic buying at supermarkets, shuttered many shops and slowed the economy of this nation of 24 million.

In the latest sign of tension, police used tear gas to break up a clash between pro- and anti-Chavez groups late Thursday. There were no reports of serious injuries in the scuffle, which came as the OAS warned that time is running out for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

``If we don't find a solution at the table, there's a risk that the country becomes more polarized, and that brings an enormous risk of violence,'' Gaviria said.

Vice President Jose Rangel, in an interview with a Chilean newspaper, warned of a plot to assassinate Chavez.

``There are expert sharp-shooters here who are hunting the president to eliminate him at any moment,'' he told the daily El Mercurio.

Citing economic and political turmoil, Chavez opponents launched the general strike Dec. 2, demanding a nonbinding referendum on his presidency, which ends in 2007. Chavez has refused, and the opposition now says it will end the strike only if he calls general elections.

The strike has crippled Venezuela's oil industry, which supplies 13 percent of U.S. imports, unsettling markets worldwide and alarming analysts heading into the winter oil season. Ali Rodriguez, president of the state-owned oil monopoly, said Venezuela might even have to import gasoline.

Fearing violence from pro-Chavez mobs Thursday night, the opposition Globovision TV network urged supporters to stay inside. Protesters banged on pots and pans _ a nightly ritual _ from inside their houses, instead of on the streets.

On Thursday, opposition supporters _ many of them middle-class professionals who accuse Chavez of stirring class warfare _ held a rowdy march outside the headquarters of Venezuela's oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.

``Every minute we're at risk of descending into violence. But I don't care. We'll stay in the streets,'' said Maria Luisa Guinand, a 28-year-old marketing executive.

Intent on breaking the strike, Chavez fired four dissident executives of the oil company. He fired the same executives and three others in April, sparking a general strike that led to a two-day coup. He reinstated the executives after he was restored to power.

Hundreds of oil workers held a raucous assembly in a Caracas hotel and gave the fired managers a standing ovation. ``We're going to keep striking until we have the freedom that we're all asking for,'' fired oil manager Juan Fernandez said.

An army colonel and a major joined more than 100 dissident military officers calling for Chavez to step down. Brothers Col. Aguedo d'Hoy and Maj. Jesus d'Hoy accused Chavez of imposing leftist ideology on the armed forces and arming paramilitary neighborhood groups to intimidate dissenters. Chavez denies the charges.

In April, dissident oil executives nearly shut down Venezuelan oil production. Labor and business groups joined the strike, and Chavez was overthrown April 12 after 19 people were killed during an opposition march. He returned April 14 after an interim government abolished the constitution and his supporters took to the streets.
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