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Venezuelan Slums Seethe at Chavez's Overthrow

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - The sprawling slums of Venezuela's capital seethed with rage on Saturday at the military coup that toppled populist President Hugo Chavez as his political backers struggled to regroup and organize protests. A wildly gesticulating group surrounded a Reuters crew at a market in the grimy working-class neighborhood of Petare, shouting that they would fight back. "There's going to be a civil war here. The people are going to rise up,"
With the fiery former paratrooper in military custody, his supporters said they would try to take their seats in the National Assembly for a scheduled session on Monday even though the new military-backed interim government has decreed the parliament's abolition.

The armed forces said early on Friday morning that the democratically elected Chavez had resigned at their request after gunmen killed at least 11 unarmed demonstrators participating in a massive anti-government protest in Caracas the day before. Earlier reports had put the death toll at 15.

The interim government, backed by the armed forces and headed by 61-year-old businessman Pedro Carmona, read an announcement on Friday accusing Chavez of multiple violations of the constitution and saying he was responsible for the protesters' deaths.

ELECTIONS WITHIN A YEAR

The armed forces said they had not staged a coup, because they had been doing their duty by acting to protect the civilian population from a violent government. The interim government said it would call elections for a new Congress and a new president within a year. Chavez, who was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote in 2000 and had been due to serve until 2006, had about 35 percent support in the last opinion poll. But discontent with him had risen steadily over the past year, with his critics accusing him of trying to turn Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship. The downfall of the 47-year-old former failed coup leader -- whose harsh rhetoric against the rich and the United States infuriated the wealthy and delighted many of the poor -- came after powerful state oil employees went on strike to protest his dismissal of petroleum executives. "We say this is a coup d'etat and that it is a lie that Chavez has resigned," said Willian Lara, who had been president of the National Assembly, talking to Reuters by telephone from a hiding place. He said he feared for his safety and that he had narrowly escaped arrest.

U.S. SAYS THERE WAS NO COUP

There has been no word whether Chavez has been charged with a crime, but he was arrested and taken to a Caracas military base on Friday and has been kept incommunicado. Lara said he had since been transferred to the Caribbean island of La Orchila, but no military spokesman confirmed this.

The United States, which had long been irritated by Chavez's friendship with Cuba and worried about his control of the world's fourth-largest oil-exporting nation, has said that it does not consider his overthrow a coup. Instead it blamed his government for triggering its own downfall by ordering gunmen to fire on Thursday's protest. Carmona met U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro on Saturday. Venezuela is now a deeply divided country. "Those who toppled him are thinking, decent people. It's the will of the people which was legitimized by the military action," said Adolfo Freites, a 49-year-old lawyer, speaking to Reuters in an elegant square in Caracas' upscale Altamira district, an anti-Chavez bastion.

But in the slums surrounding Caracas, spreading over dusty hillsides, Chavez is more of a hero than ever. He became famous in 1992 when he launched a failed military coup, accusing the then-government of President Carlos Andres Perez of corruption.

Local news media, which are passionately anti-Chavez, have largely ignored the reaction of Venezuela's poor majority. "What's going to happen to us humble, poor people? President Chavez helped us. The country is divided between rich and poor," said Jose Delgado, a 45-year-old cobbler. But protests have so far been sporadic in poor neighborhoods, with only isolated cases of protesters throwing stones and trying to loot shops.
 
 

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