Government backers wreak havoc in small Venezuelan town as rivals trade violence accusations

The motorcycles roared into the center of Los Teques and circled its town square, the tough-looking riders clad in T-shirts bearing the image of the late President Hugo Chavez and chanting "Chavez lives!" and "Maduro, president!"

The several hundred supporters of Chavez and his heir, President-elect Nicolas Maduro, converged on the local headquarters of the National Electoral Council, where backers of opposition leader Henrique Capriles planned to hold a protest against the official results of Sunday's election to replace Chavez.

As he drove down the street on a motorcycle, one young man shouted: "Here we are, defending our votes," and sped away. Another man climbed up a light post and pulled down a banner of Capriles, which his cohorts doused with gasoline and burned.

The frenzied government backers moved on to a building belonging to the opposition Democratic Action party and threw a Molotov cocktail inside, causing a small fire. State police arrived and safeguarded the building, but made no attempt to arrest the aggressors.

The group then gathered around a bakery a few blocks away, where they said the owner was a Capriles supporter. They smashed the windows on the building's facade, entered and looted it, making off with boxes of snacks and cookies. The group also tossed rocks at the headquarters of the newspaper La Regional.

Tuesday's violence in Los Teques, a town in Miranda state outside the capital, is an example of the mob actions that many people fear could grow in Venezuela, where Capriles is questioning Maduro's razor-thin, 262,000-vote win, saying the election was stolen from him.

Maduro, in turn, is accusing Capriles of fomenting violence, plotting a coup and being responsible for post-election violence that the government says has caused at least seven deaths and 61 injuries. Capriles denies the charges.

A wild card in the confrontation are the pro-Chavista motorcycle gangs and groups of pistol-toting young men in Caracas slums who see themselves as the guardians of Chavez's self-proclaimed Bolivarian revolution.

Shadowy groups known as La Piedrita and the Tupamaros form part of an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 "colectivistas" who live near the Miraflores presidential palace and proclaim loyalty to the charismatic former paratrooper. Bands of motorcycle-driving toughs loyal to Chavez also arose during his years in power.

When the motorcyclists appeared in Los Teques, Maduro was on television accusing Capriles of fomenting violence and attempting to destabilize the country two days after the election.

Capriles canceled a planned Wednesday march to the National Electoral Council in Caracas to demand a vote recount, saying he wanted to avoid possible clashes between government supporters and adversaries.

Security analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America said the rising tensions had him worried about "mob violence against opposition figures, and perhaps pro-government ones, too."