Chavez Said to Arm Venezuela Vigilantes; Weapons Intended for Military use.(PAGE ONE)

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Ceaser, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

CARACAS, Venezuela - Bolivarian Circles, the Cuban-inspired neighborhood vigilante groups charged with protecting the populist revolution of President Hugo Chavez, are being armed with weapons diverted from the military, according to army officers.

The increased firepower raises the risk of violence between them and anti-Chavez groups who have marched almost daily to protest the president's order last week to fire the chief of the Caracas city police and place his forces under the control of the national guard.

Members of the Bolivarian Circles say they exist to perform community social services and support the president. But others see a more sinister purpose to the circles, comparing them to Cuban groups that keep watch on their neighbors and report any counterrevolutionary activity.

"The Bolivarian Circles are a sort of militia," said Gen. Nestor Gonzalez, who charged that weapons belonging to the armed forces have been diverted to the groups. "They are progressively replacing [the army]."

Members of the Bolivarian Circles deny the charge and blame escalating violence in the capital on Mr. Chavez's opposition.

"[The Bolivarian Circles] are armed," said Jose Luis Perez, a Chavez supporter. "But with values, courage and purity."

The smell of smoke and tear gas is becoming a daily feature as militant "chavistas" confront anti-Chavez protesters, who are demanding a referendum on the president's rule. There is fear that the political impasse could break into a full-scale civil war.

Demonstrators yesterday blocked a busy highway in Caracas with cars, trucks and flaming piles of trash to protest the government's militarization of the city's police.

National guard troops fired tear gas and pellets to prevent Chavez supporters from clashing with the opposition marchers.

Mayor Alfredo Pena and other opposition leaders say Mr. Chavez is provoking violence as a pretext to declare martial law and to avoid demands for a referendum.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is considering whether to issue an injunction against Mr. Chavez's takeover of the police. Congress is also to debate the decision.

The court has handed down several rulings against Mr. Chavez's government in recent months.

On Monday, it dismissed a bid by Mr. Chavez to void an elections law, opening the way for a nonbinding referendum on his administration next month.

The National Elections Council meanwhile is verifying petitions with 2 million signatures demanding the referendum, which would ask Venezuelans whether Mr. …