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Morning explosions in Venezuela damage two diplomatic missions

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Powerful explosions just minutes apart devastated the Spanish and Colombian diplomatic missions Tuesday, injuring four people and raising fears that Colombian-style terror has reached next-door Venezuela.

The attacks in Caracas came two days after President Hugo Chavez denounced Colombia and Spain, among other nations, for allegedly interfering in Venezuelan affairs. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts.

Leaflets that support Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," a political movement loosely based on the writings of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, were found outside both missions. But Chavez's government dismissed the papers as a "ridiculous" plant and said no one should jump to conclusions.

"We will find those responsible for this crime," vowed Deputy Foreign Minister Arevalo Mendez.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel repudiated the attacks as "a form of terrorism never seen in Venezuela," and suggested Chavez opponents may have been involved.

He said an anti-terrorism task force would be created and offered condolences to the Colombian and Spanish people.

The explosions -- at 2 a.m. at the Spanish Embassy and 2:15 a.m. at the Colombian consulate -- smashed storefront and apartment windows and left the buildings' facades in shambles. Shattered glass covered streets and steel gates were twisted by the force of the blasts.

The blasts slightly injured four people, including a night watchman. Security was bolstered at other diplomatic missions in the capital.

Colombia condemned the "act of savage terrorism." It used the incident to urge Venezuela to increase cooperation in fighting leftist Colombian rebels.

"This attack proves the need for a joint fight against terrorism and drug trafficking," Colombia's presidency said in a statement. It warned Colombia's decades-old conflict could easily consume Venezuela.

Colombia insisted that members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and National Liberation Army, or ELN, are in Venezuela. But it stopped short of blaming Colombian insurgents for the attacks.

Spanish Ambassador Manuel Viturro de la Torre refused to speculate on who was responsible for the blasts and insisted his nation's ties to Venezuela were "excellent."

Colombian Interior Minister Fernando Londono accused Venezuela last week of refusing to condemn the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and National Liberation Army as terrorists for a series of deadly bombings.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe disavowed Londono's remarks, saying he alone spoke for Colombia. But Uribe and Spain's government urged Chavez to respect the rule of law after a Venezuelan opposition leader was arrested last week.

Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela's biggest business chamber, faces rebellion and other charges for leading a 63-day general strike against Chavez. Police are searching for strike co-leader and labor boss Carlos Ortega.

Chavez accuses both of sabotaging the key oil sector, inciting lawlessness and inflicting continuing suffering on Venezuelans.

The two-month strike, which ended Feb. 4, hobbled the world's fifth-largest petroleum exporting industry. It robbed the feeble economy of billions of dollars and turned a nation that sits atop the hemisphere's largest oil reserves into a gasoline importer.

Chavez told Spain and Colombia on Sunday not to "mess" with Venezuela. He also criticized the United States -- Venezuela's biggest oil customer -- for voicing concern about Fernandez's arrest.

Chavez notes few objected when dozens of government officials -- including Chavez himself -- were hunted down and lawlessly jailed during a brief April coup.

But Spain, the United States and other nations supporting peace talks here have watched with alarm as Chavez cracks down on his opponents.

A temporary ban on buying U.S. dollars -- imposed to stop capital flight -- is strangling industry and an import-dependent news media. Chavez has threatened to close the four major television stations for supporting the strike. His government seized weapons from Caracas' metropolitan police force, whose officers have been ambushed by pro-Chavez gunmen.

Critics accuse Chavez of inciting violence. The president accuses critics of seeking another coup against his democratically-elected government.

Chavez is a former army paratrooper who led a failed coup attempt in 1992. He was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000.


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