President Hugo Chavez resigned Friday under pressure from Venezuela's military following street violence in which National Guard troops and pro-Chavez gunmen clashed with 150,000 opposition protesters. At least 13 people were killed and as many as 110 wounded in the fighting.
Chavez handed his resignation to three generals at the presidential palace, army Col. Julio Cesar Anzola said. Wearing military fatigues, Chavez left the palace after 3 a.m. escorted by bodyguards, former Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel and palace security chief Gen. Manuel Rosendo. They were bound for the Fort Tiuna army base, Union Radio reported.
Gen. Lucas Rincon Romero, the highest-ranking military officer, declared that "the military high command abhors today's events. ... In light of these events, the president has been asked to resign. And he has accepted.
The developments stunned a nation that had seen one of the biggest civilian demonstrations against the 47-year-old Chavez's three-year rule. It came only three days after Chavez, a fiery populist and former army paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup, had vowed to crush a general strike organized by Venezuela's largest business and labor groups.
The strike was called to support oil executives who want Chavez to sack new management he appointed at the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela. The executives are conducting a work slowdown that has seriously cut production and exports in Venezuela, the No. 3 oil supplier to the United States.
Other labor groups had turned against Chavez in part because the government owes billions of dollars in back wages and pensions inherited from previous governments.
By early Friday, military and civic leaders were trying to create a transitional government, said former Gen. Guaicaipuro Lameda, until recently president of Venezuela's state oil monopoly.
"Events are still developing. I urge Venezuelans to maintain calm, to keep faith, to continue working on the road toward democracy, freedom and peace," Lameda said at Fort Tiuna. "It's with sadness that to reach this point, so many people had to die, so many wounded."
Lameda said the beginning of the end of Chavez's administration was when his government allegedly began arming so-called "Bolivarian Circles," or citizens committees that critics say are modeled after Cuba's infamous Revolutionary Block Committees. Officers said Circle members fired at opposition protesters Thursday.
"The Circles began to act like shock troops," Lameda said. "The president was disinforming Venezuelans and abusing power."
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Bernabe Carrero Cubero said Venezuela's military leadership demanded late Thursday that Chavez resign and call elections.
The head of the state security police said he'd ordered his forces to remain in their barracks. A spokesman for Oil Minister Alvaro Silva said Chavez had spent Thursday evening meeting with his ministers at the presidential palace.
Small tanks arrived outside the palace late Thursday, adding to tensions in a city already racked by the day's violence in which National Guard troops clashed with pro-Chavez gunmen and participants in a 150,000-strong opposition march.
The Jose Maria Vargas hospital said Thursday that 12 people were killed and as many as 110 wounded during the protest. Jorge Tortoza, a 45-year-old photographer with Diario 2001 newspaper, died later of a gunshot wound, the newspaper confirmed Friday.
Chavez's family flew from a Caracas military base to the western city of Barquisimeto earlier Thursday, said Air Force Col. Marcos Salas.
Army Cmdr. Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco ordered his subordinates — including Chavez loyalists — to join him in rebellion against Chavez and said military bases throughout the nation were under the dissidents' control.
"We ask the Venezuelan people's forgiveness for today's events," he said. "Mr. President, I was loyal to the end, but today's deaths cannot be tolerated." More than 40 other high officers rebelled, including Gen. Luis Alberto Camacho Kairuz, vice minister for citizen security.
Earlier Thursday, Chavez ordered five private Caracas television stations to close for allegedly inciting opposition protests. The stations continued transmitting by satellite, however, and some were able to re-establish their signals intermittently to report on the violence and casualties. The Organization of American States demanded the restrictions be lifted.
During the demonstration, National Guard troops fired tear gas at the front ranks of marchers bearing sticks and throwing rocks to keep them about 100 yards away from the presidential palace and thousands of Chavez supporters. Tear gas drifted into the presidential compound.
Multiple shots were fired near the palace, and scuffles with police erupted throughout downtown. Witnesses said snipers belonging to pro-Chavez street groups fired on crowds from rooftops; Caracas Fire Department Cmdr. Rodolfo Briceno charged that snipers fired on ambulance crews as they tried to evacuate the wounded.
Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena accused government snipers of firing on crowds, especially at opposition demonstrators. "Chavez has shown his true face. This dictator's apprentice brutally ordered the repression of a peaceful demonstration," Pena claimed.
"This is state terrorism. The international community must condemn these killings. This government is criminal," said Ramon Escobar Salon, a former attorney general.