CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela troops fought pitched street battles Friday with supporters of President Hugo Chavez (search) who tried to disrupt an opposition rally in an impoverished area of Caracas (search) considered a government stronghold. At least 14 people were injured.
Troops in armored vehicles arrived at the scene while "Chavistas," as the president's supporters are known, fought back, throwing bottles, rocks and firecrackers at security forces. They also looted a nearby police station after tearing down the walls with sledge hammers and metal rods.
Hundreds of national guard troops and police in riot gear launched tear gas grenades to disperse more than 100 rowdy government backers. Columns of black smoke rose from tires burning in the street and mingled with thick clouds of white tear gas.
Gunfire from unknown sources wounded one police officer and three civilians, said Caracas fire chief Rodolfo Briceno. At least 10 people were slightly hurt by flying objects, he added. The tear gas forced the evacuation of 25 children from a nearby hospital.
Ignoring government warnings that violence could erupt, opposition parties called the rally as part of a series of events in Caracas slums to prove Chavez's traditional support among the poor has evaporated.
Interior Minister Lucas Rincon pleaded with march organizers to take the protest to an area where there would be less potential for violence.
"We alert the population to the security risks that this act carries," Rincon said in an address to the nation late Thursday. "This isn't about impeding a political act. It's about taking it to a less risky one."
Hours before the planned protest, dozens of Chavez sympathizers burned tires in a plaza on the only route to the opposition's chosen site -- an eastern Caracas street beneath hills covered by red-brick shanties.
The protest comes three weeks after unidentified gunmen killed one person and wounded 10 at an opposition march in a poor neighborhood on the city's west side. No one was arrested.
"A truly dark story has repeated itself. We had said this was the least appropriate place to stage this demonstration," said Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel.
The opposition center-right COPEI party (search) refused to cancel the protest, insisting it wouldn't be intimidated by what it called government-sponsored violence to silence dissent.
Chavez denies those allegations. He counters opponents constantly provoke chaos to justify the ouster of a democratically elected president. The president was briefly ousted in an April 2002 coup and defied demands he step down during a ruinous two-month general strike that collapsed in February.
Early Friday, federal police sharpshooters stationed themselves on rooftops overlooking the protest site. The city government dispatched another 3,000 officers to patrol the streets. At the protest three weeks ago, police snipers fired at public housing buildings where the shooting apparently originated.
Political violence has killed more than 50 people in Venezuela over the past year, mostly during clashes between pro- and anti-Chavez forces. The country is deeply divided between those who adore Chavez as a champion of the poor and those who revile him as a power-monger trying to remodel Venezuela after Cuba's communist regime.
Chavez foes are demanding an internationally backed referendum on his rule later this year, insisting it's the only way to restore stability to Venezuela, a key oil exporter to the United States.
First elected in 1998, Chavez pushed through a new constitution in 1999 that paved the way for his 2000 re-election to a new six-year term.