CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Soldiers lobbed tear gas at tens of thousands of Venezuelans marching on a park near a military base to demand the armed forces’ support in the ongoing strike against President Hugo Chavez. Nineteen people were injured, including one photographer who was hit by rubber bullets.
Opposition protesters regrouped as the gas clouds lifted, shouting “cowards” at hundreds of soldiers facing them with armored personnel carriers. Troops also kept back dozens of Chavez supporters protesting nearby.
The first marchers to arrive at Los Proceres park, which is outside the Fort Tiuna military base, stomped down barbed wire blocking the entrance, but they did not try to break past security lines.
Hector Castillo, a photographer for the local newspaper El Mundo, was injured by rubber bullets that some soldiers fired into the air, Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said. Eighteen other people were treated for asphyxiation, he said.
The park is one of eight security zones in Caracas as decreed by Chavez. Protests are banned in those areas unless authorized by the defense ministry.
“All of this show of force is absurd,” said Henrique Capriles, the opposition mayor of an eastern Caracas district. “People are tired of being assaulted and repressed.”
The military – purged of dissidents after a brief April coup – has supported Chavez during the strike, which has paralyzed the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter but has not rattled the president’s resolve to stay in power.
Troops have seized oil tankers, commandeered gasoline trucks and locked striking workers out of oil installations. Top commanders have professed their loyalty to the government.
Speaking in his weekly radio and television address on Sunday, Chavez dismissed opponents as “fascists” manipulated by the media.
He also dismissed Infrastructure Minister Eliecer Hurtado, a retired general, and replaced him with Diosdado Cabello, the current interior minister. Chavez did not explain the change or say who would head the interior ministry, which commands the federal and secret police forces.
Venezuela’s main television stations are not broadcasting any commercials except opposition advertisements promoting the strike. Media owners say they have been pushed into this stance because Chavez incites followers to attack reporters.
Chavez threatened to revoke the broadcasting licenses of television and radio stations if they “continue with their irrational insistence on destabilizing the country by supporting this fascist subversion.”
Venezuela’s largest labor confederation, business chamber and opposition parties began the strike Dec. 2 to demand that Chavez resign and call early elections if he loses a nonbinding referendum on his rule.
The National Elections Council scheduled the referendum for Feb. 2 after accepting an opposition petition signed by 2 million people.