Venezuelan Prez calls burning of govt building `terrorism`

Hugo Chavez suspects landowners and his opponents were behind the fire.

Last Updated: Jan 10, 2011, 12:18 PM IST

Caracas: Venezuelan authorities have evidence of arson in a fire that badly damaged a government building used by officials carrying out farm seizures, President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday, calling it an act of terrorism.

He said investigators determined the National Lands Institute office in western Zulia state was doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Road-blocking protests erupted in the area last month when officials and troops seized a list of large private ranches.

"We won`t rest until we catch those responsible for this terrorist act," Chavez said during his regular Sunday television and radio program.

The camera cut to live images of a charred office, where a piece of furniture was smoking and investigators were looking through debris.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said the fire was clearly a deliberate attack. He added that one person who was working in the building when the blaze broke out early Saturday escaped unharmed.

Chavez said he suspects landowners and his opponents were behind the fire, and vowed to redouble his government`s socialist-oriented efforts to take over large swaths of farmland.

"We will never be defeated by those murderers, by those criminals, by those terrorists!" he said. "But look at how far they`re capable of going."

Without elaborating, he added that he suspects the "murderous and fascist hand of imperialism and the bourgeoisie" behind the fire.

Chavez often accuses his opponents of acting in concert with the United States to try to destabilise his government, and regularly condemns what he calls US "imperialism" in Latin America.

"All of this is politics. It`s the political fight ... for power," said Chavez, who has accused the owners of large properties in the area of illegally seizing the best farmland over the years.

There was no immediate reaction from opposition leaders.

"If the terrorists, the fascists of the bourgeoisie and the landholders think they`re going to intimidate us ... they don`t know us," he said. "These terrorists aren`t going to stop us. They`re very wrong. I`ve ordered a strengthening of the recovery of lands in the entire country, and in this particular case south of Lake Maracaibo."

The government says it has taken over more than 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of rural land in recent years, often targeting farms and ranches that officials contend were either fallow or underused or whose ownership could not be proven through documents.

The government says it aims to boost food production and aid the landless. Critics say the measures have often targeted working farms and are hurting food output.

Last month, officials accompanied by soldiers and pro-government farmers began taking control of 47 private ranches in western Venezuela covering more than 93 square miles (240 square kilometres). Chavez later said officials decided to let 16 ranch owners keep properties that are relatively small and being used productively.

Manuel Cipriano Heredia, who heads the country`s cattle ranchers` association, called for an impartial investigation of the fire.

He said on Saturday that he hopes the incident "does not get turned into an excuse to further threaten a national industry that, through the effort of several generations, created their ranches from nothing in the middle of the forest”.

Chavez`s opponents have strongly criticized the latest farmland seizures, saying the government is taking over productive ranches.

Chavez said that he ordered the military to set up a command centre in the area where the fire occurred and that land agency officials would continue their work under tighter security.

He also said he ordered his military intelligence agency to the area, saying agents would go undercover to gather information.

Bureau Report