Saturday, February 28th 2004 - 21:00 UTC

G-15 in Caracas marred by violent incidents

Two people were killed and dozens injured Friday afternoon in clashes between Venezuelan Army troops and opposition demonstrators trying to reach the seat of an international summit being held in Caracas.

Soldiers used tear-gas and rubber bullets to break up the opposition march that was attempting to deliver a political document condemning the ruling government, to the XII Summit of the Group of 15 which was opened by President Hugo Chávez with the participation of six heads of state and delegations from nineteen countries.

The protests that later extended to several other areas of the Venezuelan capital left at least two people dead and 39 injured, 15 with bullet wounds, according to the first official reports including 350 people who needed medical attention because of tear gas asphyxiation.

Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña deplored the "brutal aggression" mounted by security forces against protestors and demanded from the government the immediate cease of "use of violence".

"It's a disgrace that a peaceful and civilian demonstration can't take place with out been viciously attacked, it's a day of mourning for Venezuela", indicated Mr. Peña.

It all started when demonstrators tried to break a security perimeter established by the Army a kilometer away from where the summit was taking place. The purpose of the protest was to deliver foreign heads of state a document claiming the Chavez administration is appealing to illegal obstacles and street violence to prevent a recall referendum contemplated in the Venezuelan constitution which could force Mr. Chavez out of office.

The government earlier had urged its opponents to drop plans to march to the seat of the summit, warning that if the appeal was ignored they would be dealt with "severely."

Defence Minister Gen. Jorge Luis Garcia Carneiro asked the opposition to call off the march, and the head of security at the summit warned that any public disturbances would be responded to with "severity", adding that "any violence will be met decisively with the appropriate measures". At least 10,800 soldiers and national guards were displayed in security operations for the summit.

Carlos Ocariz, a representative from the centrist opposition party Justice First, said that "there are brave people who are willing to see this through to the end." "If there is violence, the government alone will be responsible," said another opposition spokesman, William Ojeda, adding that "we will go where we said we were going."

Among those attending the two days G-15 Summit in Caracas are the leaders of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner; Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva; Colombia, Alvaro Uribe; Jamaica, P.J. Patterson; Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe; and Iran, Mohammed Khatami.

Also present will be the foreign ministers of the 19 developing countries belonging to the G-15, created at the 1989 Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade: Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Egypt, Jamaica, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

However Brazilian president Lula da Silva according to reports from the Brazilian press unexpectedly left the summit and flew directly to Sao Paulo where vice-president Jose Alencar is recovering from a gallbladder operation.

Agencia Brasil pointed out on Lula's departure that security in Caracas is in the hands of the Army and "Lula does not want to become involved in Venezuela's internal conflict", which Brazil is helping to mediate as part of the so-called group of friendly countries, which includes the United States, Spain, Mexico and Chile. Along similar lines, other Brazilian media speculated Lula is cutting short his stay in Venezuela to avoid appearing to endorse President Chavez at a time when Venezuelan electoral officials will be deciding on the crucial recall referendum that could lead to anticipated presidential elections next August.

"Brazilian authorities believe the G-15 summit is helping to strengthen Chavez's domestic position, rather than to advance discussions on international south-north cooperation policy" reported O'Globo television in Sao Paulo.

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