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Rallies Continue Day After Venezuelan President Considers Martial Law

Several thousand supporters of President Hugo Chavez marched through downtown Caracas Saturday demanding an end to opposition strikes that have paralyzed the country's oil industry.

Wearing paratrooper berets like the president's and waving Venezuelan flags, the marchers said they wanted business to resume at the state-run oil monopoly, PDVSA. "This is a march to defend what belongs to all Venezuelans," said key Chavez ally Guillermo Garcia Ponce, who joined the march.

"We aren't going to allow conspirators to destroy PDVSA as part of a plan to overthrow a popularly elected government," Garcia Ponce told state-run television.

Government allies staged the march a day after the leftist president said he would consider imposing martial law to quell the five-week strike and halt escalating political violence.

Gunfire erupted Friday during an opposition march on the headquarters of the armed forces, Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said. Two people died of gunshot wounds and at least 78 others were injured -- five of them by gunshots.

It was unclear who fired on the demonstrators, who were met by hundreds of Chavez supporters throwing rocks and bottles at security forces trying to keep the two sides apart.

"I am obligated to protect the people. I am obligated to protect public order," Chavez said. "If they force me to (decree martial law), I'd have to do it.

"So far, despite everything that has happened, there has been no need to apply any exceptional measures," he added.

Chavez made his comments after meeting with Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, who is trying to negotiate a settlement between the government and the opposition.

Daily street protests by Chavez opponents and supporters have been common since the opposition declared a general strike Dec. 2 in an attempt to oust Chavez.

Friday's anti-Chavez march deteriorated into a melee after the national guard fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a few hundred Chavez supporters, who were throwing rocks at security forces while waiting for marchers to arrive at a park near the military base entrance.

When marchers arrived and moved toward a security line, guardsmen fired more tear gas into the crowd. Shots then rang out.

The protest lasted several hours in the park, under a veil of tear gas, before marchers dispersed.

The injured included seven police officers, Police Chief Henry Vivas said. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said 11 people were hurt in a stampede.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel on Friday blamed "irresponsible" march leaders for trying to enter the park, which the government has declared a security zone -- one of eight such zones in Caracas.

"They tried to break through a security barrier and that produced the clashes with security forces," Rangel told The Associated Press.

The last time people were killed during a political demonstration was Dec. 6, when three people were gunned down at an opposition rally. Dozens were killed in April rioting during a short-lived coup that briefly ousted Chavez. With support from loyalists in the military, Chavez regained power after two days.

"The force of law is going to be imposed here," Chavez said.

Opposition leader Hermann Escarra warned, in comments broadcast on Globovision television, that Venezuelans would hold Chavez responsible if martial law was declared and civil rights were violated.

The marchers demanded the release of Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, one of about 100 officers who revolted last fall. Martinez was arrested Dec. 30 without a required court order and remains under house arrest even though a judge ordered his release.

The opposition accuses Chavez of causing a deep recession here -- unemployment has reached 17 percent and inflation 30 percent under his rule. The opposition also charges Chavez with trying to impose a leftist, authoritarian government.

Chavez insists the opposition, which he calls the oligarchy, is trying to sabotage the economy to force him from power. He has agreed to a binding referendum on his presidency in August, halfway through his six-year term, which he says is the only way to test his support constitutionally.