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Two killed in venezuelan recall protests { March 3 2004 }

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Wednesday, March 03, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific

Two killed in Venezuelan recall protests
By Reuters and The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Two opposition protesters were killed in clashes with Venezuelan troops yesterday as election officials ruled foes of President Hugo Chávez had failed to collect enough signatures for a recall vote.

At least six people have been fatally shot and dozens wounded in five days of violence in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter as Chávez opponents press for a vote against a leftist president they accuse of dictatorial rule.

National Electoral Council President Francisco Carrasquero said first results showed the opposition had collected only 1.83 million valid pro-referendum signatures — short of the minimum 2.4 million required for a referendum.

The referendum could still go ahead if at least 600,000 of the questioned signatures are validated, Carrasquero said.

A final decision could be made at the end of March after the reconfirmation checks.

Troops firing tear gas and plastic bullets skirmished with anti-government protesters in the capital and several other cities. One demonstrator was killed in clashes in Valencia, about 120 miles from Caracas, and another man was fatally shot in the capital, hospital officials said.

The opposition tried to dislodge Chávez, who has vowed to give the poor more benefits from Venezuela's huge oil wealth since he was first elected in 1998, through a short-lived coup in 2002 and a general strike that dragged on for two months last year.

Prodded by the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center, the government and the opposition agreed in May on ground rules for an eventual recall referendum.

The petitions were delivered in December. But electoral authorities continue to delay an announcement on whether the recall effort can proceed.

If Chávez loses in a referendum held before mid-August, the midway point for his term, new presidential elections must be held. But if he loses in a vote held after mid-August, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel would take over for the rest of his term.

Opponents fear if that happens, Chávez would merely rule behind his right-hand man for the rest of his term, which ends in January 2007.

The opposition charges the elections council belatedly changed the rules to disqualify hundreds of thousands of signatures. The council says observers were told not to allow voters to simply sign already filled-out forms, but thousands of signatures were delivered that way.

The council said that voters whose signatures were under dispute would have between March 18 and March 22 to report to voting centers to confirm that they, indeed, had signed the petition.

Venezuela's opposition claims that such a monumental task, involving hundreds of thousands of citizens, could indefinitely postpone the referendum or derail it entirely.

Even before the announcement, protests surged as the opposition anticipated the result. National guard troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through several cities as demonstrators burned tires and hurled rocks and gasoline bombs at soldiers. Sporadic gunfire was heard for a second straight night in Caracas, and protests were reported in at least 10 other cities.

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