Rioting, Protests Against Chavez in Venezuela

Demonstrators hurled rocks and gasoline bombs at soldiers as protests intensified after Venezuela's elections council ruled against an opposition petition to force a presidential recall referendum.

Opponents of President Hugo Chavez (search) say they submitted more than 3.4 million signatures. Some 2.4 million are needed for a recall election.

But council President Francisco Carrasquero (search) announced Tuesday that just 1.83 million signatures were deemed valid. Another 876,016 signatures may be valid — if citizens confirm that they indeed signed the petition, Carrasquero said.

The decision triggered demonstrations by citizens banging pots and pans and exploding fireworks throughout the capital, Caracas, where thousands took to the streets.

Rioting — which began earlier Tuesday as the opposition anticipated the ruling — also was reported in several of Venezuela's most important cities in the hours after the council's decision.

National guard troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through several cities as demonstrators burned tires and threw rocks and gasoline bombs at soldiers. Sporadic gunfire was heard for a second straight night in Caracas.

The local Globovision (search) television channel broadcast footage of several vehicles burning in a parking lot in Caracas' Los Ruices district, where troops fired rubber bullets at protesters who fought back with Molotov cocktails and threw rocks.

Globovision reported that protests continued in eastern city of Puerto La Cruz with troops firing rubber bullets at protesters, who were chanting "He's leaving, he's leaving," referring to Chavez.

Many opposition leaders had said they would not accept a decision requiring voters to confirm their signatures. The measure was allegedly not included in rules established for the verification process, they said.

The council said that voters would have between March 18 and March 22 to report to voting centers to confirm that they indeed had signed the petition.

Venezuela's opposition claims that such a monumental task, involving hundreds of thousands of citizens, would postpone the referendum or derail it entirely.

Protests have forced private banks to shut 20 branch offices, prevented garbage collection, caused traffic jams and hampered transit by emergency vehicles, keeping thousands from work.

Chavez's foes have been blocking traffic throughout Caracas since Friday to protest what they view as a government plot to derail the referendum — their last chance of legally ousting Chavez before the next elections in 2006.

At least one person has been killed and 60 wounded since Friday. Dozens have been arrested.

Chavez's foes say the populist former paratrooper has mismanaged the country and become increasingly autocratic, while his supporters accuse the opposition of trying to mount a coup.

Venezuelans had been waiting since Sunday for the council to release its findings.

Prodded by the Organization of American States (search) and the U.S.-based Carter Center (search), the government and the opposition agreed in May on ground rules for an eventual recall referendum.

The petitions were delivered in December. But electoral authorities continue to delay an announcement on whether the recall effort can go ahead.

If Chavez, who was re-elected to a six-year term in 2000, loses in a referendum held before mid-August, the midway point for his term, new presidential elections must be held. But if he loses in a vote held after mid-August, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel would take over for the rest of his term.

Opponents fear if that happens, Chavez would merely rule behind his right-hand man for the rest of his term.

The opposition charges the elections council belatedly changed the rules to disqualify hundreds of thousands of signatures. The council says observers were told not to allow voters to simply sign already filled-out forms. But thousands of signatures were delivered that way.

After Tuesday's decision, the OAS and Carter Center — which have said they saw no evidence of fraud — insisted they would ensure everyone who signed for the referendum will have their signature count.

Despite "some discrepancies" with the council decision, especially over placing the burden of proof on citizens being asked to confirm their signatures, the OAS and Carter Center will insist on "an electoral solution" to Venezuela's political crisis, OAS delegate Fernando Jaramillo said.