Venezuela Coup Thwarted, President Says

AN attempted coup by rebel military officers in oil-rich Venezuela Feb. 4 was put down by loyal troops hours after it began, President Carlos Andres Perez said in a televised address.

"The situation is completely under control in Caracas. The rebels in the capital have surrendered," he said.

In an apparent bid to crush what is left of the insurgency and avoid possible civil unrest, the Venezuelan Cabinet passed a decree suspending the constitutional rights of citizens for a "brief" period. There were reports of looting in stores, but acting Foreign Minister Rosario Orellana told reporters after a Cabinet meeting that it was still unclear whether the government would seek to impose a curfew.

Mr. Perez, who had returned from a foreign trip only hours before the midnight coup attempt, said rebel paratroopers had planned to assassinate him. Rebel troops simultaneously attacked the Miraflores presidential office complex in the city center and La Casona palace, the president's official residence in eastern Caracas.

"A group of soldiers violating their constitutional duties attempted a coup to assassinate me," Perez said in his television address. "Fortunately, the loyalty of the armed forces has impeded it."

Perez called on the rebel soldiers to respect the will of the public that elected him and to rebuff any officers involved in the attempt. He said those behind the coup would be "severely punished."

Broadcast reports said the coup attempt was headed by a group of middle- and low-ranking military officers from Caracas, Maracay, Valencia, and Maracaibo.

High-ranking military officers appear to firmly back Perez, and several expressed support for the president on television. He was also fully backed by opposition parties as well as labor and business sectors.

Army Capt. Daniel Fontaine told reporters that rebels in Caracas had surrendered, but some fighting continued in several other cities, and the rebels reportedly were still holding the La Carlota airfield in Caracas. Reports at press time said rebels were still resisting in Carabobo and Aragua states - some 100 miles from Caracas - and in Zulia state, where Venezuela's major oil fields are located.

Perez said he had received telephone calls of support from President Bush and the leaders of France and Spain as well as several Latin American nations.

(Speaking to reporters in Washington, Mr. Bush called Perez "one of the great democratic leaders in our hemisphere and to have this outrageous illegal military coup certainly should be condemned by all countries, not just in our hemisphere.")

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, having enjoyed democratic rule since 1958.

Perez celebrated three years in office Feb. 2, but his administration was beset by coup rumors late last year and has recently been rocked by violent demonstrations over price hikes. He has steadily slipped in popularity polls in recent months.

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