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april 16, 2013 • 11:11 AM • last update 11:53 AM

Venezuelan rivals rally supporters, four people reported dead

Supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles demonstrate for a recount of the votes in Sunday's election, in Caracas, April 15, 2013.
Foto: Tomas Bravo / Reuters
 

Violent clashes over Venezuela's disputed presidential election have killed four people, the state news agency said on Tuesday, as both sides in the stand-off planned rival demonstrations.

The deaths occurred when hundreds of protesters took to the streets in various parts of the capital, Caracas, and in other cities on Monday, blocking streets, burning tires and clashing with security forces, in some cases.

The AVN news agency said two people were killed in Miranda state, which includes part of Caracas, one in Tachira state on the border with Colombia, and another in western Zulia state. It gave no further details.

In one of the confrontations, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets in a running battle with masked, rock-wielding opposition supporters in a wealthy district of Caracas.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles is demanding a recount of the votes from Sunday's election after official results showed a narrow victory for ruling party candidate Nicolas Maduro, the acting president.

Capriles said his team's figures show that he won the election and he has called his supporters into the streets for peaceful demonstrations.

The National Electoral Council refused to hold a full recount, saying a 54 percent audit of the widely respected electronic vote system had already been carried out.

The election was triggered by the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez last month after a two-year battle with cancer. He named Maduro as his successor before he died and his protege won the election with 50.8 percent of the vote against Capriles' 49.0 percent.

Both sides have urged their supporters to hold peaceful demonstrations nationwide on Tuesday, raising fears of more unrest in the oil-exporting nation of 29 million people, which has seen plenty of political turbulence in the last few decades.

"Imagine if I went crazy and called the people and armed forces onto the street? What would happen in this country? How many millions would pour onto the street?" Maduro said late on Monday, blaming Capriles for the violence.

"We're not going to do it. This country needs peace. Where are the opposition politicians who believe in democracy?"

The unrest in Caracas included demonstrations outside the offices of state television channel VTV and the home of the head of the election authority.

Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, hopes to highlight the weakness of Maduro's mandate and stir up opposition anger over his charge that the electoral council is biased in favor of the ruling Socialist Party.

The strategy could backfire if demonstrations turn into prolonged disturbances, such as those the opposition led between 2002 and 2004, which sometimes blocked roads for days with trash and burning tires and annoyed many Venezuelans.

A return to prolonged trouble in the streets could renew questions about the opposition's democratic credentials on the heels of their best showing in a presidential election, and just as Capriles has consolidated himself as its leader.

LEGAL MOVE AGAINST CAPRILES?

Senior government figures have raised the possibility of legal action against Capriles.

"Fascist Capriles, I will personally ensure you pay for the damage you are doing to our fatherland and people," National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello said on Twitter, requesting that state prosecutors open a criminal investigation.

But the opposition leader says he will fight on.

"We are not going to ignore the will of the people. We believe we won ... we want this problem resolved peacefully," Capriles told a news conference.

"There is no majority here, there are two halves." Opposition sources say their count showed Capriles won by more than 300,000 votes.

His team says it has evidence of some 3,200 election day irregularities, from voters using fake IDs to intimidation of volunteers at polling centers. It wants an exhaustive check of the paper-ballots printed at the time of casting a vote.

The focus of Monday's protests in the capital was the Plaza Altamira, which was often site of opposition demonstrations during Chavez's polarizing 14-year rule. Burned-out debris and glass lay strews on the ground on Tuesday morning.

"We will protest for as long as it takes. We will not give up the streets," said Carlos Cusumano, a 20-year-old student who took part in the protest.

Wearing T-shirts wrapped around their faces, some demonstrators threw sticks and stones at the ranks of police, who wore body armor and carried shields.

Maduro, who had initially said he was open to a recount, called on his supporters to demonstrate all week. The official results showed him winning by 265,000 votes.

"Maduro won and the people have proclaimed him," said dental technician Alicia Rodriguez, 38. "Learn to lose!" she added in reference to the opposition's stance.

The head of the electoral authority, Tibisay Lucena, shot down the opposition leader's call for a recount, saying "threats and intimidation" were not the way to appeal its decisions.

She also accused the U.S. government and Organization of American States of trying to meddle in Venezuelan affairs after they backed the idea of a vote audit.

The controversy over Venezuela's first presidential election without Chavez on the ballot in two decades raised doubts about the future of "Chavismo" - the late president's self-proclaimed socialist movement - without its towering and mercurial founder.

Chavez named Maduro as his heir in an emotional last public speech to the nation before his death, giving the former foreign minister and vice president a huge boost ahead of the vote.

But Maduro's double-digit lead in opinion polls evaporated in the final days as Capriles led an energetic campaign that mocked Maduro as a non-entity and focused voters on daily problems ranging from crime to inflation and creaking utilities.

Maduro's margin of victory raises the possibility he could face future challenges from rivals in the leftist coalition that united around Chavez, who won four presidential elections.

At his last election in October, the former soldier beat Capriles by 11 percentage points even though his battle with cancer had severely restricted his ability to campaign.

Reuters Terra