Chavez backers, foes rally for Venezuela Parliament

Venezuelan President has been accused of staging a "coup" against Assembly.

Caracas: Supporters and opponents of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez traded taunts and held duelling rallies on Wednesday at the start of a new Parliament shorn of power by the socialist leader`s assumption of rule by decree.

Although the new National Assembly has greater numbers of opposition lawmakers -- who had hoped to curb the former soldier`s self-styled "revolution" -- the outgoing Parliament hobbled it by awarding Chavez decree powers for 18 months.

Opposition supporters gathered noisily in downtown Caracas before the new lawmakers took their seats. They accuse the President of staging a "coup" against the Assembly and say he is turning the South American OPEC member into a dictatorship.

"Our tasks in the National Assembly are now very clear: to stop the imposition of Communism in Venezuela, this Communism that creates death, sadness and darkness," said one opposition leader and new Caracas legislator, Maria Corina Machado.

Several thousand opposition supporters gathered to cheer their lawmakers off to the assembly, some shouting "Down with the revolution! Down with corruption!" while others waved banners reading "We are back!" and "We are the majority!"

On a corner opposite, women in red pro-government T-shirts sang back: "Ooh! Ah! Chavez no se va! (Chavez will not go!)"

Police, some in riot gear and carrying shields, blocked streets in the area and kept watch from a helicopter.

But apart from isolated scuffles there was none of the trouble that has marred past rallies in Venezuela.

Chavez, 56, says he needs decree powers to speed through urgent reconstruction after December floods smashed infrastructure and left 140,000 homeless.

He insists he is ruling in the name of a poor majority downtrodden for decades until he took office in 1999.

Bureau Report