CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's vice president said the government would respect the high court if it approves a Feb. 2 referendum on President Hugo Chavez's rule, and there were growing signs in Congress of support for the vote.
However, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel warned that such a ruling would create chaos in this country of 24 million already coping with a general strike called by opponents of Chavez.
"If the Supreme Tribunal confirms the referendum is constitutional we will accept this verdict," Rangel said, noting the government alreay complied with a ruling that exonerated the leaders of an April 11 coup against Chavez.
In November, opposition groups fought through tear gas and bullets to present election authorities with 2 million signatures required for the nonbinding referendum.
Under Venezuelan law, citizens can force a referendum by gathering signatures from at least 10 percent of the nation's 12 million registered voters.
Chavez says his government will not transfer $22 million required by election authorities to organize the February balloting until the court decides if the vote is legally sound.
But even if the court allows the vote, the government says it won't go along with a negative outcome.
Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, argues the only way he can be removed from office is through a recall referendum in August, halfway through his six-year term.
In Congress, two lawmakers dropped out of a leftist party that supports the president and said they would support amending the constitution to allow early elections, El Universal newspaper reported Wednesday.
"We will present a proposal for an amendment calling for ... early elections," lawmaker Rafael Simon Jimenez said.
He added that legislator Luis Salas backed the position. Both had belonged to the small leftist Podemos party. Without them, Chavez still has a slim majority in Congress.
Anger is growing on both sides as the strike drags into its sixth week. It has hurt oil production in the world's fifth largest exporter and depleted store shelves. Chavez's opponents call him authoritarian and unfit to govern, while supporters of the leftist former paratrooper accuse strikers of trying to force a coup.
On Tuesday, an airliner headed to the Dominican Republic was forced to return to Caracas when passengers staged an on-board protest targeting a Chavez ally.
They shook fold-out trays and shouted to protest the presence of retired Gen. Belisario Landis, Venezuela's ambassador in Santo Domingo, shortly after the Aeropostal-Alas de Venezuela flight left the ground. The pilots returned to Caracas, and everyone on board was evacuated.
The Boeing 727 took off again an hour later, after passengers promised not to disrupt the flight again.
Also Tuesday, an unidentified man threw a tear gas grenade at a group that was shouting "Assassins! Assassins!" at three pro-Chavez lawmakers.
After a few minutes of confusion, the airport continued functioning normally.
Chavez opponents claim the former paratrooper is building an authoritarian regime and riding roughshod over public institutions.
The Bloque de Prensa, the nation's largest association of newspapers, issued a statement Tuesday accusing Chavez of "violent repression of peaceful marches" and preparing "to close television and radio stations" critical of his government.
Leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition movement said they would intensify the strike in response to a government takeover of the Caracas police force.
Soldiers loyal to Chavez seized riot gear from the police department Tuesday in what Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena called a deliberate effort to undermine him.
Pena said the raid stripped police of their ability to control street protests that have erupted almost daily since the strike began Dec. 2. Five people have died in strike-related demonstrations.
Police used tear gas Tuesday to separate pro- and anti-Chavez protesters. Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said one protester was wounded by gunshots and another hit by a vehicle. Both were in stable condition, he said.
Rangel said the seizure was part of an effort to make police answer for alleged abuses against Chavez demonstrators. The government accuses police of killing two Chavez supporters during a melee two weeks ago.