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Over 1 Million Venezuelans Demonstrate Against Chavez

In the opposition's biggest show of force since it launched a crippling general strike, more than 1 million Venezuelans poured into the streets of the capital Saturday to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chavez.

Chanting "Let him leave today," protesters filled bridges, overpasses and parks along Caracas' busiest highway, carrying giant Venezuelan flags, blowing whistles and chanting anti-Chavez slogans. Popular folk musicians gave a fiery concert into the night.

Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briseno said more than 1 million people were demonstrating in what he called "the biggest march we've seen in recent times."

Meanwhile, government officials summoned Chavez supporters to an unannounced "Christmas celebration," where several thousand people danced and clapped their hands to traditional Christmas music.

Opposition leader Carlos Ortega said the march was what the opposition needed to topple Chavez.

"This response should bring the head of state to make the decision he needs to make about Venezuela's crisis — and that is none other than to leave, quit, so Venezuela can restore confidence, peace and calm," he said.

The demonstration was peaceful. Protesters marched with their children, or their dogs. Many followed the march route on bicycles, skateboards and motorcycles.

But the government, the opposition and international mediators have warned that riots could break out any day as the 13-day-old strike makes food, cash and transportation increasingly scarce — and makes Venezuelans more polarized.

Efforts sponsored by the Organization of American States to head off violence have produced no results. The opposition says it will continue its protest until Chavez steps down or calls elections; Chavez says he will do neither.

The strike has crippled Venezuela's oil industry — the world's fifth largest — rattling international markets and its chief petroleum customer, the United States. Crude output has fallen from about 3 million barrels a day to only 550,000.

For the second straight day Saturday, Chavez supporters massed around the presidential palace, celebrating his rule but also protecting the president in case the opposition decides to march on his offices. A march on the palace in April led to violence that killed 19 people and sparked a coup that ousted Chavez for two days.

But Ortega said he wouldn't urge the marchers to move on the palace, saying that "would be irresponsible at this point."

The gathering of Chavez supporters was on the path the opposition rally would need to take to reach the presidential palace.

The opposition supporters packed the streets with a sea of red, yellow and blue signs — the colors of Venezuela's flag. "2002 without Christmas; 2003 with freedom," read one sign.

"If we're afraid, we'll never get away from this man (Chavez)," said Rita de Velasquez, a 37-year-old saleswoman. "If we don't defend our country like men and women, later we'll be crying like children about our dictatorship."

The protesters overwhelmed the key highway, which runs alongside an air force base in downtown Caracas. Last week a smaller group of protesters blocked the same stretch of highway, and national guard troops broke up their demonstration with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Earlier, dozens of Chavez supporters protested outside a bank in eastern Caracas, demanding it open its doors and cash their checks.

"My family doesn't have anything to eat and I have no cash," said Matilda Mercado, 39. She had waited outside the bank for six hours trying to cash two checks, but the bank remained closed. "I blame the strike leaders for this," she said.

About 20 police officers in riot gear stood between the protesters and the bank.

Soldiers remained stationed outside police stations in an occupation of the 9,000-member Caracas Metropolitan Police that began a month ago. Chavez ordered the troops to seize police installations from the opposition mayor of Caracas — a catalyst for the strike.

Mayor Alfredo Pena and ousted police chief Henry Vivas have refused to recognize the military presence or the new police chief appointed by Chavez.

On Friday night, a top court issued an injunction handing police installations and equipment back to the mayor while it considered the case. But the military did not withdraw, and police said soldiers continued to restrict their access to the stations. Radios, patrol cars and most rifles were confiscated.

"We have access to our revolvers and a few shotguns, but they are keeping most of our long arms," said Commissioner Lucas Rondon.

Pena said there was little he could do to make the government obey the court.

"I don't have tanks or bazookas or airplanes to make the head of the military in Caracas obey a court order," he told The Associated Press.

Government-opposition talks were suspended for the weekend. Since the negotiations began a month ago, they have made little progress, and the opposition has increased its demands. Originally meant to force a nonbinding referendum on Chavez's rule, the strike now seeks to force Chavez to call general elections, or step down.

Chavez, who retains strong support mainly among Venezuela's majority poor, has alienated many middle-class Venezuelans amid a deteriorating economy.

Thomas Shannon, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said Saturday that Venezuelans should work toward early elections, staking out a new assertive stand by Washington on Venezuela's political turmoil.

"We need some kind of early election," he said. "What those early elections are is something that only the Venezuelans can decide for themselves."

Chavez's foreign minister, Roy Chaderton, accused the opposition of plotting a coup and said he "would appreciate a very sharp condemnation" by the region's neighbors of any attempt to oust Chavez.