CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez moved to take control of the Caracas police force Saturday, but opponents of the leftist leader rejected the manuever as a threat to talks on resolving the country's deepening and violent political crisis.
Chavez's Deputy Citizen Security Minister Alcides Rondon said the government was taking "exceptional and provisional" command of the 9,000-strong police force to end a 1-month dispute between officers. He cited laws that allow government intervention in times of crisis.
But the move only heightened political tensions in Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier. Chavez's opponents say he must step down, and both sides have repeatedly held mass protests in the capital.
Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello said that city police would share their duties with the National Guard, but opposition mayors and state governors with jurisdiction over parts of Caracas vowed to ignore an army order for "mixed" police patrols.
After Chavez moved to take control of the capital city's police Saturday, opponents and the ousted police chief said they would try to block the takeover, and the outcome the Chavez maneuver was not certain.
The government said it had to move to end the dispute between police officers that has lasted 47 days. Pro-Chavez Police Sgt. Jorge Alvarado seized a key precinct in Caracas in October to stop opposition Mayor Alfredo Pena from forcing him into retirement.
On Wednesday, the government sent 2,000 soldiers into the streets, a day after police officers clashed with each other and Chavez supporters. Two people were killed and dozens wounded.
Opposition leaders claim the move is aimed at neutralizing Pena, a major Chavez adversary. Chavez has repeatedly claimed Pena is plotting a coup with opposition leaders.
Rondon appointed Emigdio Delgado as new director of the police force, replacing Henry Vivas, who had been named by Pena.
Vivas said he would not step down.
"I was appointed by Mayor Pena, and he is the only one who can replace me. I am still the police chief," said Vivas.
Pena called the intervention "a coup ordered by Chavez" and vowed to challenge the measure at the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the nation's highest court. Opposition leaders planned to stage a march in Caracas on Tuesday to protest the measure.
Several leaders already said they would not recognize the police takeover.
"We don't recognize Emigdio Delgado as the head of the metropolitan police," said Henrique Capriles, mayor of Caracas' Baruta district.
Capriles said the intervention provides a dangerous precedent, and he warned Chavez could seize control of other state and municipal police forces.
The measure threatened to jeopardize negotiations between Chavez' government and the opposition. They want an early, nonbinding referendum on whether he should step down, while Chavez argues the earliest a referendum can be called under the constitution is August 2003 -- halfway through his six-year term.
Pena called on leaders of the Democratic Coordinator, an assemblage of opposition groups pushing for Chavez' ouster at the ballot box, to end talks with the government.
"I don't understand how they can continue negotiating with this government," he said.
Opposition leaders claim Chavez is trying to intimidate his adversaries and disrupt the negotiations. They promised to keep talks going.
Pena claims the officers have been paid and Chavez wants to create divisions within the police force to weaken its response to armed attacks on city hall by Chavez supporters.
Until Wednesday's army deployment, Chavez's government ignored calls to crack down on the raids.
"This is Chavez' strategy, he's trying to make the opposition leave the negotiation table. But we aren't going to fall into that trap," said Henrique Salas, governor of central Carabobo state.
Americo Martin, one of six opposition representatives at the talks, said: "We won't leave the negotiation table, but we can't allow things like this to continue occurring."
Chavez supporters claim Pena is using the Caracas police to quash pro-Chavez rallies while protecting opposition marchers.
"I cannot permit the metropolitan police to continue trampling the people, violating the people's rights," Chavez said during a recent broadcast of his weekly radio program. Chavez has repeatedly accused the metropolitan police of quashing pro-government demonstrations.
Chavez survived a two-day coup in April, one sparked in part by a general strike and the slayings of 19 people at an opposition march.