Venezuelan Police Fire Tear Gas to End Siege

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to free dozens of people, including Caracas' mayor and other key opposition figures, from armed protesters at city hall Tuesday. The mayor blamed President Hugo Chavez's supporters for the violence.

The shooting and tear gas forced dozens of stores to close and people to flee downtown Caracas' Plaza Bolivar area. National Guard troops joined police in quelling the melee.

The approximately two dozen demonstrators also vandalized shops and occasionally fired at police after abandoning their siege of city hall. Officers rescued citizens hiding inside stores. Some, including infants, suffered tear gas exposure.

Among those trapped inside city hall for several hours were greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, a Chavez critic; Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza; and members of an opposition political movement.

They were preparing a report for the Organization of American States on harassment by pro-Chavez street toughs when the siege began, Globovision television reported.

Pena blamed the violence on "Chavista" activists and a small group of policemen who have been striking to demand the resignation of their bosses. "Chavistas," as the president's supporters are known, have attacked city hall several times.

Chavez's government had no immediate comment.

It was the biggest eruption of political violence since Nov. 4, when chavistas attacked an opposition march, wounding and injuring more than 60 people. As with most violence fomented by Chavez supporters, there were no arrests.

Chavez has said he no longer controls violent radicals, many of them members of Chavez's so-called "Bolivarian Circle" neighborhood groups.

Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, is brokering talks between the government and Venezuela's opposition, which demands early presidential elections.

Opposition leaders vow to call an indefinite strike if Chavez refuses to accept a referendum on his presidency. Venezuela's constitution says a binding referendum cannot be called until halfway into his six-year term, or next August.

Hundreds of white-collar workers at Venezuela's state-owned oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela SA demonstrated Tuesday to protest the use of company headquarters by members of Bolivarian Circles and Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party for a teleconference convened by Chavez.

Dissident executives at the monopoly, which prizes its autonomy, were a key force in an April coup that briefly toppled Chavez.

Protesting Chavez's appointment of board members, they staged a strike that nearly halted oil production. Labor and business groups joined the protest, which culminated in a protest march April 11. When snipers fired on the demonstrators, killing 19, Chavez was ousted by the military. He was reinstated two days later after counter-protests.