Victims of Political Violence in Venezuela Buried During Pro-Chavez Rally

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

Thousands of government supporters chanted "Justice! Popular justice!" Sunday at a funeral for two men killed at a political rally amid a month-old strike aimed at toppling the president.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel and several Cabinet ministers helped carry the flag-draped coffins of Oscar Gomez Aponte, 24, and Jairo Gregorio Moran, 23.

It was not clear whether the dead men had been Chavez supporters or foes. Both sides blamed each other for the bloodshed and claimed the two dead as their own.

Thousands followed the coffins waving Venezuelan flags, pumping their fists and chanting. On the way to the cemetery, the procession stopped at the Melia hotel, where Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria is staying, leaving a letter denouncing the recent violence.

Gaviria is brokering negotiations between the government and the opposition on ending the general strike against President Hugo Chavez that has crippled the oil-rich country's economy and virtually dried up gasoline supplies.

Opposition leaders blame Chavez's leftist policies for a deep recession and accuse him of trying to accumulate too much power. They want him to resign or hold a nonbinding referendum on his rule, which he says would be unconstitutional.

Gomez Aponte and Moran died during a melee Friday between Chavez supporters, opposition marchers and security officials. At least 78 people were injured.

The violence erupted when several hundred presidential supporters threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at thousands of opposition marchers outside the Fuerte Tiuna military headquarters in Caracas.

Police fought to keep the two sides apart, firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. Gunfire rang out. The government said it came from police, but opposition protesters insisted it came from Chavez supporters.

"These compatriots were slain savagely, and all suspicion falls on police," the vice president said Sunday at the burial.

Chavez tried to take over the city police force — which reports to an opposition mayor — last fall. The Supreme Court ordered Chavez to restore the force's autonomy, but Rangel said the government was considering retaking it.

Two police officers also were wounded Saturday when gunfire broke out during Gomez Aponte's wake. Chavez supporters fired on police after the government blamed the Caracas police for the Friday deaths, police chief Henry Vivas said.

Officers returned fire using rubber bullets and tear gas. The government initially claimed one woman died from tear gas asphyxiation but the state news agency Venpres said Sunday she survived.

Rangel also urged Chavez supporters not to be provoked into violence by opposition leaders, whom the government accused of trying to use the strike to prompt a coup similar to one that briefly ousted the president in April.

"Do not be provoked. These are delicate times," Rangel said.

The strike, which began Dec. 2 and includes some 35,000 employees of the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, has paralyzed oil exports and helped drive international oil prices above $30 a barrel. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a top supplier to the United States.

The government has fired 251 more striking oil workers, said strike leader Alfredo Gomez on Sunday. Gomez was among 90 PDVSA executives whom Chavez fired last month. Government officials were not immediately available to confirm Gomez's claim.

The government says workers hired to replace the strikers are resuming production.

On Saturday, a tanker carrying 350,000 barrels of oil left for Cuba, PDVSA President Ali Rodriguez said in an interview published Sunday in the El Universal newspaper. Another ship was being loaded with 600,000 barrels destined for the United States.

Venezuela usually exports about 3 million barrels a day.

Chavez said Friday he might consider imposing martial law to try to break the strike and halt escalating political violence.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition movement called on Venezuelans to donate between $1.80 and $3.50 to hold the referendum on Feb. 2 as planned.

The opposition presented over 150,000 signatures to election authorities Nov. 6 to call for the referendum, but the National Elections Council says the Chavez-controlled Parliament hasn't authorized $22 million needed to pay for it.

Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, has challenged the legality of the referendum at the Supreme Court.