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Venezuela holds voting drill ahead of election

Venezuela held a national voting drill Sunday ahead of the country's October presidential vote, with President Hugo Chavez facing his toughest electoral challenge in more than 13 years in office.

The country's National Electoral Council said more than 1,500 polling stations opened nationwide for the mock vote. In the streets of Caracas, supporters of Chavez and his challenger Henrique Capriles said the drill largely went smoothly.

"This was fast and easy," said Ana Rodriguez, 26, after she pressed down her thumb to activate the ballot box. "I've never voted before but I feel this is the right time to start. The vote is secret, but I have already made up my mind."

Outside the polling station at a school in downtown Caracas, the two political camps had set up tents with loudspeakers blaring music. For the Capriles camp, it was salsa and techno, while Chavez's supporters played "llanera," the music of Venezuela's cowboys, infused with lyrics praising the leftist president.

Vendors were also divided. Jose Adolfo Escamilla sold red hats and berets embroidered with images of Chavez, independence hero Simon Bolivar and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"I'm not going anywhere with Capriles," Escamilla said. "I'm a Chavista to the grave."

Nearby, Capriles supporters wore caps with the national flag's yellow, blue and red, which have become the young candidate's signature during his campaign stops. He's visited more than 200 towns during the past two months.

"This is going to be historic," Octavio Hernandez, a university student, said as he handed out leaflets promoting the opposition candidate. "We're finally going to remove this man."

In a nationally televised interview by phone, Chavez said he was pleased with the results of the drill and congratulated Venezuelans for participating.

"We're giving a demonstration of the efficiency of the Venezuelan people, regardless of where they stand in the political field," he said.

Chavez dismissed criticisms by some opponents that the use of thumbprint readers to activate the electronic voting system could scare away some voters during the Oct. 7 vote.

Capriles' campaign has also assured voters that their choices will remain secret.

The voting drill had originally been scheduled a week earlier but was delayed due to the deadly blast at the country's biggest oil refinery on Aug. 25, which killed at least 42 people and left more than 150 injured.

Opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez accused Chavez's team of using state funds to mobilize people to the polling stations for the voting drill, and called on the electoral council to investigate.

"They should take note of this abuse, where city halls, governorships and institutions are using the resources of all Venezuelans to mobilize people to most electoral centers," Lopez told reporters. "It seems like that's the only way they have to create a presence in the streets."

Lopez said the opposition had sent 553 coordinators and more than 21,000 witnesses to monitor the drill just as they will on election day. The witnesses are assigned at polling stations throughout Venezuela to prevent irregularities on election day.

Capriles, a former state governor, was nearly even with Chavez in a survey last month by pollster Consultores 21, which found Capriles at 48 percent and Chavez garnering 46 percent. The poll consulted 1,000 people and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Other polls have given a double-digit lead to Chavez. Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis found Chavez with a 15-point lead in one June poll, but also said 23 percent of those surveyed were undecided or didn't reveal a preference.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao