Venezuelan opposition asks Carter to stay to witness march

Sunday, July 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Opposition leaders on Sunday urged former President Jimmy Carter to extend his peace mission here to witness a march against President Hugo Chavez and hopefully prevent violence.

Thousands of anti-government protesters are expected to march on the Miraflores Presidential Palace on Thursday. Chavez supporters often entrench themselves outside the palace to repel protesters.

Carter, who arrived in Venezuela Saturday and was planning to leave the day before the march, is hoping to salvage faltering reconciliation talks between the leftist government and its opposition. The government-sponsored dialogue began after an April coup that briefly ousted Chavez.

Here at Chavez's invitation, Carter met Sunday with Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, media owners and Roman Catholic Church leaders. He dined Saturday night with Chavez.

U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro urged Venezuelans to accept Carter's help, or help from the Organization of American States.

``Without an effective and sincere dialogue polarization will continue,'' Shapiro said in a Sunday interview with El Universal newspaper. ``There will always be differences, but having a divided country is dangerous for Venezuela, which is on the brink of a social explosion.''

Should Carter stay for the march, ``violent pro-government groups won't dare attack men and women on the streets demanding justice, peace and democracy,'' 11 opposition parties said in an open letter to Carter published Sunday in El Universal.

News media owners repeated the request in their meeting with Carter, said Miguel Otero, director of El Nacional newspaper. Carter said he would consider having some members of his team stay for the march, Otero said.

Chavez accuses the news media of supporting coup leaders in April by blacking out coverage of demonstrations demanding his return. Journalists say Chavez's verbal aggressions against the press inspire his supporters to harass reporters on the streets.

Thursday's march is to demand Chavez's resignation and commemorate the 18 people who died and hundreds wounded during an opposition march in April.

Alarmed by the bloodshed, military rebels ousted Chavez, only to see him swept back to power 48 hours later by civilian protesters and loyalist troops. Government opponents and supporters blame each other for the violence.