CARACAS, Venezuela – Soldiers loyal to President Hugo Chavez seized submachine guns and shotguns from Caracas' police department Tuesday in what the opposition mayor called a bid to undermine him.
Federal interference in the capital's police department is one reason Venezuela's opposition has staged a strike -- now in its 44th day -- demanding early elections. Tuesday's raids stoked already heated tensions in this polarized nation.
Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena said the weapons seizure 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.
A smaller district police force used tear gas Tuesday to separate pro- and anti-Chavez protesters. Officials said two protesters were injured.
Strike leader Manuel Cova said opponents would "strengthen the struggle to topple" Chavez in response to the raids.
"This demonstrates the antidemocratic and authoritarian way in which this government acts," said Cova, leader of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, the country's largest labor union.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel vowed there would be no early elections until a possible referendum in August, halfway into Chavez's six-year term. Opponents insist Venezuela is too unstable to wait that long.
"Chavez opponents must get it out of their heads that the way out is ... for Chavez to go," Rangel told foreign reporters. "That proposal is profoundly undemocratic."
Rangel said the weapons 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 that involved Chavez followers, opponents and security forces.
"The metropolitan police cannot be above the law, above the executive, above citizens," Rangel told foreign reporters. "We are trying to make them answer to the law. That's why we seized their equipment and weapons."
Troops searched several police stations at dawn, confiscating submachine guns and 12-gauge shotguns used to fire rubber bullets and tear gas, said Cmdr. Freddy Torres, the department's legal consultant. Officers were allowed to keep their standard-issue .38-caliber pistols. It was not clear how long the seizure would last.
Chavez ordered troops to take control of the force in November, but the Supreme Court ordered it restored to Pena last month.
Chavez is trying to break a strike that has paralyzed Venezuela's crucial oil industry and cost the government an estimated $4 billion. He has warned he might send troops to seize food production plants that are participating in the strike.
Called to press Chavez into accepting a nonbinding referendum on his rule, the strike has depleted many Caracas supermarkets of basics like milk, flour and bottled water. People spend hours in lines at service stations and at banks open only three hours a day. Many medicines are no longer are available in pharmacies.
Rangel said the strike was weak outside of Caracas -- one reason the government has been able to survive. "Is there a country on Earth that can withstand a strike for 44 days? I don't think so," the vice president said.
With hopes of helping resolve the dispute, former President Jimmy Carter plans to visit Caracas on Jan. 20 to observe the crisis, the Atlanta-based Carter Center announced.
Carter, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, will consult with Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, who has been mediating talks between the two sides, the center said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he plans to meet Chavez Thursday when he comes to the United Nations to hand over the chairmanship of the Group of 77, an organization of mainly developing nations. Annan said he will discuss with Chavez "how one can intensify the mediation efforts ... to calm the situation and return it to normalcy."
"He knows that I believe that one should use constitutional democratic means to resolve this issue and that is my message not only to him but to the opposition," the secretary-general said.
Venezuela's oil industry provides half of government revenue and 80 percent of export revenue. With the strike, about 30,000 of 40,000 workers in the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., are off the job.
Venezuela was the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a key supplier to the United States, and the U.S. Energy Department has said the crisis could cause American motorists to pay up to $1.54 per gallon of gasoline by spring.
Rangel said oil production will reach 1.5 million barrels a day next week -- about half pre-strike output. Currently, production is 800,000 barrels a day according the government, 400,000 according to striking executives fired by Chavez.
The president has vowed to restructure the oil monopoly and reduce bureaucracy at its Caracas headquarters, a hotbed of dissent.
Mayor Pena said Tuesday's police raids would force officers to stop patrolling many dangerous neighborhoods. Venezuela's crime rate rose 44 percent last year, the government says, partly because of a sharp rise in robberies.
"There is an escalation here leading to a dictatorship," Pena said. "The lives of the 5 million citizens who inhabit this city are in danger."